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Democrats Make Bush School Act an Election Issue

Ohanian Comment: It has certainly taken the Democrats a long time to figure out that plenty of people who usually vote for them are very very angry. I say their current criticism is too opportunistic to be believed. Take a look at their other statements on education.

Note that Clinton, Obama, and Dodd are all on the Senate education committee. Have you seen anything constructive coming out of that committee in the last five years?


By Sam Dillon

WASHINGTON â Teachers cheered Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton when she stepped before them last month at an elementary school in Waterloo, Iowa, and said she would âendâ the No Child Left Behind Act because it was âjust not working.â

Mrs. Clinton is not the only presidential candidate who has found attacking the act, President Bushâs signature education law, to be a crowd pleaser â all the Democrats have taken pokes. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has said he wants to âscrapâ the law. Senator Barack Obama has called for a âfundamentalâ overhaul. And John Edwards criticizes the law as emphasizing testing over teaching. âYou donât make a hog fatter by weighing it,â he said recently while campaigning in Iowa.

This was to be the year that Congress renewed the law that has reshaped the nationâs educational landscape by requiring public schools to bring every child to reading and math proficiency by 2014. But defections from both the right and the left killed the effort.

Now, as lawmakers say they will try again, the unceasing criticism of the law by Democratic presidential contenders and the teachersâ unions that are important to them promises to make the effort even more treacherous next year.

âNo Child Left Behind may be the most negative brand in America,â said Representative George Miller of California, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee.

âAnd thereâs no question about it,â Mr. Miller added. âIt doesnât help to have people putting themselves forward as leaders of the party expressing the same disenchantment they hear from the public, saying âJust scrap it.â Congressmen read the morning papers just like everybody else.â

Democrats had long dominated the issue of education until Mr. Bush seized it in his first presidential campaign, making frequent stops at schools to condemn the âsoft bigotry of low expectationsâ for minority children and to pledge that schools in poor areas would improve test results or face federal sanctions. The No Child law passed in his first year of office with the support of a strong centrist coalition.

Seven years later, policy makers debate whether the law has raised student achievement, but polls show that it is unpopular â especially among teachers, who vote in disproportionate numbers in Democratic primary elections, and their unions, which provide Democrats with critical campaign support.

âThereâs a grass-roots backlash against this law,â said Tad Devine, a strategist who worked for the past two Democratic presidential nominees. âAnd attacking it is a convenient way to communicate that youâre attacking President Bush.â

These political realities are making it extremely difficult to rebuild the bipartisan majorities that first approved the law during Mr. Bushâs first year in office, when he worked on the legislation with Mr. Miller and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is now the chairman of the education committee. Mr. Miller, a passionate advocate of school accountability, took the lead this year in trying to draw up a bill that would change troublesome provisions but preserve its core goals.

He faced obstacles from the start, including opposition from many Republican lawmakers, who say the law intrudes on statesâ rights, and from Democrats, who say it labels schools as failing but does too little to help them improve. And by all accounts Mr. Miller worked doggedly to build consensus.

But virtually every proposed change in the law ignited fierce battles, and when Mr. Miller released a draft bill for comment in late August, it pleased no one.

âHis bill got creamed,â said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of Education Trust, a group that advocates for disadvantaged children, who has worked closely with Mr. Millerâs staff.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also threw herself into the effort, meeting with scores of congressmen and barnstorming through Ohio and Indiana in a school bus, seeking Republican support.

âI killed myself,â Ms. Spellings said. But she acknowledged that the effort now faces tremendous obstacles. âItâs a minefield. If I were George Miller, Iâd be saying, âHow can I put Humpty Dumpty together again?ââ

Mr. Kennedy now plans to take the lead with the bill early next year. âWe have to convince people that the bill we introduce, that this will not be a rubber stamp of the current law,â he said in an interview.

Mr. Kennedy tried to clear the air last month by quietly inviting Mr. Miller and the presidents of the two largest teachersâ unions to a meeting on Capitol Hill. All four pledged to strive for agreement, but both union presidents said later that it remained unclear whether Congress could produce a bill acceptable to union members.

âI donât think you recognize the magnitude of the anger thatâs out there,â said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. âMy members are driving me, and if they think Iâm not doing everything I can to change this law, theyâll take me to the woodshed.â

What is not acceptable to union members is unlikely to be acceptable to Democratic presidential candidates. The teachersâ unions have little influence with Republicans, and several Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and John McCain, have voiced support for the law. But the Democratic candidates can hardly ignore unionized teachers in Iowa and New Hampshire, who are calling for sweeping change.

Alan Young, president of the National Education Association affiliate in Des Moines, got some television exposure about a year ago when he addressed Mrs. Clinton during a town-hall-style meeting. Pointing out that she was on the Senate education committee, Mr. Young urged her ânot to be too quick to reauthorize the law as is,â but rather to rework its basic assumptions.

In the months since, Mr. Young said he has spoken about the law personally at campaign events with Mr. Richardson, John Edwards and Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr.

âWe want them to start over with a whole new law,â Mr. Young said.

Three of the Democratic presidential candidates, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, are on the education committee. Mr. Kennedy acknowledges that campaign criticism of the law could complicate his effort, but pointed out that even though the candidates have criticized the law, most have also expressed support for its core goals.

Mr. Obama, for instance, in a speech last month in New Hampshire denounced the law as âdemoralizing our teachers.â But he also said it was right to hold all children to high standards. âThe goals of this law were the right ones,â he said.

When Mr. Edwards released an education plan earlier this year, he said the No Child law needed a âtotal overhaul.â But he said he would continue the lawâs emphasis on accountability.

And at the elementary school in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton said she would âdo everything I can as senator, but if we donât get it done, then as president, to end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.â

But she, too, added: âWe do need accountability.â

Even though the candidates hedge their criticism of the law with statements supporting accountability, it is hard to imagine their accepting revisions that fall short of a thorough overhaul â and that could be difficult for Mr. Bush to stomach, said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Even Mr. Bushâs catchy name for the law is likely to disappear in any rewrite, he said.

âI canât imagine that Democrats could write a bill that would satisfy their caucus but not be vetoed by President Bush, at least in the current environment,â Mr. Petrilli said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times
2007-12-23


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