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School Issue May Be Lesson for Bush

Agenda: President-elect to seek bipartisanship on education reform. But his priority project is more divisive than it appears.


WASHINGTON — President-elect George W. Bush has chosen to top his agenda in Congress next year with education reform, an initiative that he hopes will spur the kind of bipartisanship seen as essential to the success of his presidency.

But on Capitol Hill, bipartisanship on education reform may not be as easy as it looks.

Both parties proclaim the need to improve the nation's schools. But in recent years, some of the most emotional, protracted fights in Congress have been fought over exactly how to do that.

Vouchers. Testing. Religion in schools. Those are white-hot political issues that continually have split lawmakers.

The bickering was so bad that Congress, in the session that just ended, failed for the first time in 35 years to enact a routine reauthorization of the main federal education law. When centrists offered a compromise between feuding Senate factions, only 13 people voted for it.

Hoping to bridge those stubborn divisions, Bush invited a large, bipartisan group of senators and House members to Texas last Thursday for a meeting to discuss his education agenda. His main goals include giving states more flexibility in using federal education money, making schools more accountable for results and stepping up early education and literacy programs.

"There was a lot of agreement," Bush said after the meeting. "There is no better place to start to show [America] that our Congress and the president can cooperate for the best of the country than education."

But lawmakers from both parties warned that, if Bush wants to begin with a quick victory in Congress--rather than a big fight--he would be wise to soft-pedal one of his most ambitious proposals: vouchers. A key element of his effort to make schools more accountable is a plan to allow the families of disadvantaged students in failing schools to convert federal aid into a voucher that they could use for private education.

"Education could be a stepping stone to more bipartisanship--if we stay away from pitfalls like vouchers," said Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, one of several Democrats invited to the meeting with Bush.

Whether to push for vouchers is part of a broader question of legislative strategy that Bush faces, one that also will affect such issues as tax policy and reforming Social Security. Does Bush want to begin his term aiming for smaller, bite-sized victories in Congress? Or should he fight for his more ambitious ideas during his first 100 days, when a new president's political capital is traditionally at its peak?

Many Republicans in Congress endorse the more limited approach, urging him to put vouchers on the back burner, seek targeted tax cuts--such as repeal of the estate tax--rather than across-the-board reductions in tax rates and relegate Social Security reform to a study commission for now.

So far, Bush has insisted that he intends to press ahead with his more sweeping proposals. But at this stage of the political game, few would expect him to signal a willingness to settle for less.

At the least, the education meeting provided a window into how Bush plans to build bridges to the Democratic Party--by aiming straight for its conservative wing. Almost all the Democrats at the meeting in Texas were moderate-to-conservative "new Democrats." Pointedly excluded was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Senate's leading liberal voice on education issues.

Kennedy did not comment on his exclusion. But his spokesman, Jim Manley, said that he did not believe the group Bush met with "represents all the interests that [will have] to be dealt with on the House and Senate floor."

The course of this year's education debate will provide a clear test of whether Bush's administration can help break old partisan habits that have crippled an array of school reform initiatives.

It has not always been such a chore to find consensus on education legislation. For years it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. But that has changed as attention has focused on a handful of partisan issues.

The debate on education "has become more divisive," said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who may become chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

For instance:

* Efforts to abolish the Department of Education became an emotional centerpiece of the drive by Republicans to downsize government after they won control of Congress in the 1994 elections. Democrats fought back and used the issue to portray the GOP as hostile to education itself, not just the federal bureaucracy. Burned by that tactic, Republicans in recent years have stopped clamoring for the department's elimination.

* Congress has twice cleared legislation to allow tax breaks for parents who save for their children's education costs, but the measures failed to become law because tuition for private schools was included in their scope. Fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, the bills were vetoed by Clinton.

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