Kennedy Demands Full Funding for School Bill
Ohanian Comment: Who cares if Kennedy was snookered? It's a bad bill, and throwing more money at it won't transform it into a good bill. Something is missing here. Why does he support NCLB so determinedly?
WASHINGTON, April 4 - The words seem to haunt Senator Edward M. Kennedy these days: "a tin cup budget."
That was how Mr. Kennedy's firebrand colleague on the education committee, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, dismissed the No Child Left Behind law, urging Democrats not to support President Bush's showcase issue in the absence of guarantees on future spending.
At the time, Mr. Kennedy was not to be deterred. He negotiated language with the Republicans, corralled Democratic support, showed up at the signing ceremony and spent that spring in a victory tour with President Bush promoting the law.
Now, though, as he takes to the campaign trail for John Kerry, Senator Kennedy has adopted his colleague's very words as he rails against the administration for demanding massive changes from public schools on "a tin cup budget."
Mr. Kennedy, one of the Senate's shrewdest operators, appears to feel personally swindled.
"This is an entirely new concept, a new initiative, a new endeavor," he said in an interview in his office. He likened No Child Left Behind to the enactment of Social Security, and to the race to the moon 40 years ago led by his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
"I believe the exact same type of commitment was made to children," Mr. Kennedy said. He said that Mr. Bush "misstated, misspoke, misrepresented his position" on financing No Child Left Behind.
"This is not a commitment to me," he said. "It is a commitment to the parents, the children, the schools that are trying to carry out this law."
Mr. Kennedy maintained that he supported the law only because he believed President Bush would demand substantial increases in federal spending on elementary and secondary education to achieve the law's goals.
Others scoff at the notion of a consummate politician like Mr. Kennedy being hoodwinked.
"Not a credible historical analysis," said Sandy Kress, the lawyer who represented the White House in Congressional negotiations over No Child Left Behind. "Nobody snookers Ted Kennedy."
No Child Left Behind gives the nation until 2014 to render all students proficient in reading and math. It also requires annual testing of all students in grades 3 to 8, and once in high school, with steadily more severe penalties for schools whose students fail to make sufficient annual progress for two or more years.
Republican leaders contend that Democrats well understood that while the law authorized as much as $80 billion in additional spending on Title I high-poverty schools alone by 2007, that did not mean the full amount would be appropriated.
"I can assure you, cross my heart, that we had many discussions about funding, but there was never a discussion, not one, about funding No Child Left Behind at authorization levels," said John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "It never happened."
Republicans also maintain that under President Bush, spending on the high-poverty schools that are the main concern of No Child Left Behind rose some 42 percent, from nearly $8.8 billion in 2001 to $12.3 billion in 2004. Democrats counter that much of that increase came at their insistence, in defiance of lower budget requests by President Bush.
"The commitment was made on both sides to have a significant increase in No Child Left Behind funding," Mr. Boehner said, adding, "I would argue that we've more than met our commitment."
Disputes over spending on No Child Left Behind began not long after President Bush signed the law in January 2002, and are likely to grow louder as the presidential election approaches.
A recent poll by Education Week and the Public Education Network ranked education second in the list of voter concerns, behind only the economy, and ahead of terrorism, security, health care, prescription drugs and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And 60 percent of those polled said that the federal government did not contribute enough money to public schools.
Mr. Kennedy and his aides said that it was not long after Mr. Bush signed the law that they began suspecting that the money would not match their expectations. Just four weeks after the signing, Mr. Bush released his budget for the 2003 fiscal year, which, while increasing money for high poverty schools, sought a net $90 million cut in spending in areas connected to No Child Left Behind. The next year, the administration proposed a net cut of $1.2 billion.
"The administration has misstated their position on issue after issue," Mr. Kennedy said. "It's nothing terribly new now, but it was at the time."
Others, however, contend that the rapid discord over money for education should have come as no surprise. Just a month before the law was signed, Senator Jim Jeffords met with Democrats hammering out the law's final details with Republicans. He was not pleased.
Mr. Jeffords had abandoned the Republican Party over the absence of a White House commitment to finance special education fully, giving Democrats the Senate. His defection handed Mr. Kennedy the chairmanship of the education committee.
At the meeting, however, Mr. Jeffords concluded that the Democrats were selling education short, supporting No Child Left Behind with no guarantees that federal spending would match the law's grand ambitions.
The only voice backing Senator Jeffords belonged to Mr. Wellstone.
Despite the risk that there would not be enough money, however, Mr. Kennedy did not have tremendous room to maneuver.
During his transition, Mr. Bush summoned not Mr. Kennedy, but Representative George Miller of California, and Senators Joseph I. Lieberman and Evan Bayh, to discuss education in Austin. Neither of the senators sat on the education committee, but they belonged to a moderate wing of their party, known as the New Democrats, that was proposing its own plan for overhauling public education. Mr. Bush's overture to them raised the threat of the White House ignoring Mr. Kennedy and the traditional Democrats altogether, increasing the pressure on him to negotiate.
"There clearly was a separate play with some of the New Dems," said Mr. Kress, a self-described "charter member" of the New Democrats.
In addition, No Child Left Behind built on the Clinton Administration's 1994 law requiring states to establish academic standards and ways of measuring their success in achieving them. That law faced hurdles from both parties, and the Clinton administration made only fitful progress getting states to comply; until 2000 the Republican Party platform called for abolishing the Education Department, not expanding its role.
President Bush offered a complete reversal of that. Suddenly, "The stars were aligned and it was time to act," said Andrew Rotherham, education policy director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a research organization tied to the New Democrats.
For all his complaints over money, Mr. Kennedy has consistently fought Democratic attempts to free schools from the demands of No Child Left Behind if the federal contribution falls short of authorization levels.
So what do the authorized levels really mean? Within the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans, the authorization levels are generally described as nothing more than caps on spending. So why did negotiations over the authorization numbers go on for months? Why were they so fierce?
"It's not a cap," said Senator Lieberman. "It's a statement of intent, of desire. It's a goal you'd like to reach."
It is also a potential political weapon, said Mr. Kress, and that idea was not lost on Republicans.
Republicans understood that Democrats could paint the gap between authorization levels and actual federal spending as a kind of unfulfilled promise, Mr. Kress said. "There was an understanding that could happen."
Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times
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