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Bush Signs Education Reform Bill in a Major Bipartisan Achievement

Policy: Despite the accord, parties are seen as unlikely to find similar compromises on other key issues.

January 09, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HAMILTON, Ohio — President Bush on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping revision of federal education policy, celebrating the principal bipartisan achievement of his administration with venerable liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at his side.

"It is a great symbol of what is possible in Washington when good people come together to do what's right," Bush said as he signed the bill at a high school here.

But early signals suggest that apart from the war against terrorism, opportunities for such bipartisan agreements in 2002 may be scarce.

Bush and Senate Democrats begin the year sharply divided on energy policy, health care, economic stimulus plans and how to respond to renewed federal budget deficits--the subject that ignited a recent firefight of words between the president and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). With money tight, and the ideological distance between Senate Democrats and House Republicans wide, both sides expect more stalemate than consensus on these domestic concerns.

"Unfortunately, the education bill is probably going to be the exception" to the rule, said Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Blending Republican and Democratic priorities, the education measure requires states to impose new annual reading and math tests for children in the third through eighth grades, toughens teacher standards and provides new options to parents whose children attend poorly performing schools.

"Today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country," Bush said at the start of a daylong tour that took him from Ohio to New Hampshire and Massachusetts before he returned to Washington. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results."

Education has always been an exception in Bush's relations with Congress. On most issues--such as the tax cut he pushed through last spring or the patients' bill of rights legislation that remains stalled--Bush has designed his proposals mostly to unify Republicans, even if that meant attracting relatively little support from Democrats.

But on education, the administration engaged in months of negotiations with an array of Democrats, from liberals such as Kennedy to centrists such as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. The result was that education reform became the only major Bush initiative--apart from the immediate responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--to attract majority support from legislators in both parties.

That broad support was visible on the platform behind Bush in Ohio on Tuesday: Kennedy was joined by one of the House's most liberal members, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), and two conservative Republicans, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio. Bush praised all of them, including Kennedy, the liberal icon.

"The folks at the Crawford, [Texas,] coffee shop would be somewhat in shock when I told them I actually like the fellow," Bush said to laughter. "He is a fabulous United States senator. When he's against you, it's tough; when he's with you, it is a great experience."

The legislation Bush signed sat in a box nearly 1-foot tall, covered in blue velvet. With a nod to its heft, Bush said, "I'm not going to read it all."

The bill largely embodied Bush's campaign pledge to offer flexibility to school officials for accountability. It gives states and local districts more freedom in spending federal dollars, but requires the annual reading and math tests. The bill also reflects Bush's call for intensified efforts to teach reading in the early grades.

But the measure also advances Democratic desires to substantially increase spending on Title I, the massive federal program that funds extra help for low-income students. The amount for Los Angeles Unified School District will be $309.5 million, $87.2 million more than last year.

The impulse to compromise on the bill was perhaps most visible in the way the two sides dealt with schools that fail to improve student performance on the new exams, a central issue in the legislation. Originally, Bush proposed that low-income parents in failing schools be provided federally funded vouchers to help pay for sending their children to private schools.

But with Democrats and many moderate Republicans opposing such vouchers, Bush quickly dropped the idea. Instead, lawmakers agreed to provide funds to states to intervene in failing schools and require them to offer parents money for after-school tutoring if the schools do not improve student performance.

"We've spent billions of dollars with lousy results," Bush said Tuesday. "So, now it's time to spend billions of dollars and get good results."

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