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NPR Analysis: Effect of No Child Left Behind on President Bush's votes in the election this fall

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Early in his presidency, George W. Bush pushed through Congress one of the most sweeping school reform laws in a generation. The No Child Left Behind Act gives the federal government unprecedented authority over schools. It also gave Mr. Bush an issue that he can use in his re-election campaign, a means to counter the view that Democrats care more about public education. With No Child Left Behind increasingly criticized, it is unclear whether the president's record on education will give him an edge. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

For the past 33 years, Bill Niday has been a teacher, a principal and now superintendent of schools in Wood County, West Virginia. And he's never seen a presidential election hinge on the issue of education.

Mr. BILL NIDAY (School Superintendent): I don't believe that when people step into the voting booth in presidential politics that the issue of education causes people to vote for or against any candidate. I believe that people look at taxes, wars, economy as issues that are more important than education.

SANCHEZ: Unless, of course, the president of the United States makes education an issue.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

SANCHEZ: Last May, President George Bush chose Parkersburg South High School in Wood County to do just that at an event that was both campaign stump speech and school board meeting with Mr. Bush presiding as superintendent.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you have the attitude that certain children can't learn to read and write and add and subtract, sure enough, certain children won't learn to read and write and add and subtract. So we're raising that bar. We're providing extra money, we're holding people accountable and we're making sure there's local control of schools. See, the people of Parkersburg can run the schools better than people in Washington, DC, can, that's for certain.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: The president cited the bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind, mandatory testing and reading and math, a 49 percent increase in federal funding for low-income school children since he's been in office, his push for technical vocational education and teacher training, things that the president has wisely connected to jobs and the economy, says Niday.

Mr. NIDAY: President Bush has made that connection with people in this county, and I think presidential candidate Kerry will have a difficult time carrying Wood County. It's gonna be a very close race.

SANCHEZ: Officials from both campaigns agree West Virginia's up for grabs. Mr. Bush won the state's five electoral votes in the last election by the slimmest of margins, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1; 3-to-1 in Wood County. `This year it's going to be different,' says Dolores Townsend.

Ms. DOLORES TOWNSEND (Wood County Resident): I think West Virginia's going to take a hard look at what's happened over the last four years, and I think they're going to realize that it's time for a change.

SANCHEZ: Townsend is a special education teacher at Parkersburg South High and co-president of the Wood County Education Association.

Ms. TOWNSEND: I'm not certain that President Bush represents the values of Wood County or West Virginia when we're cutting programs that help the neediest. For four years, that's been what's happened. We've seen a reduction in services to single mothers, we've seen a threat to Head Start. The tax breaks didn't really help the people in West Virginia that much. Those went to very wealthy people.

SANCHEZ: `And Senator John Kerry isn't calling teachers terrorists,' says Townsend, a reference to US Education Secretary Rod Paige's off-the-cuff remark earlier this year that the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, was like a terrorist organization in its criticism of No Child Left Behind. Townsend likes what Kerry is saying about teachers.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democratic Presidential Candidate): I've been to schools around the country and talked to countless numbers of teachers who are struggling, who want to produce for their kids. They've chosen this as a profession. They're doing it because they believe in teaching and are rewarded by it and love it and love the kids. So I think we need to draw more teachers, and we, the federal government, need to help leverage that so we can raise the salaries and attract more people to that task.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: That was Kerry in California last May where he unveiled a $30 billion plan to reward the best teachers and vowed to weed out the bad ones. What gets the biggest applause, though, is Kerry's promise to roll back the Bush tax cuts, send an extra $20 billion to schools and significantly expand federal funding for after-school programs. Still, Kerry hasn't exactly energized Democrats or teachers in Wood County. Many are still upset he voted for No Child Left Behind in the first place. Republicans in Wood County, meanwhile, dismiss Kerry as just another tax-and-spend liberal.

Unidentified Man #1: You'd better get something to eat if...

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I'm about to do that.

Unidentified Man #1: I'll tell you, these West Virginians are fast eaters.

SANCHEZ: Every Wednesday at the local Moose Lodge at the end of a gravel road behind a strip mall, Republican diehards get together for lunch. Today there's Tom Azinger, a local Republican delegate to the State Legislature, 90-year-old Reese Blizzard, an Eisenhower campaign organizer, and Fred Gillespie, the Republican candidate from Wood County for state House this fall. They reserved a big table and agreed to talk about the election. They don't think education is a big issue, but Gillespie says he's baffled by President Bush's focus on it.

Mr. FRED GILLESPIE (Republican, Wood County): Well, the way I view that, the president doesn't have any business in the schools. I mean, the schools are state-run and run by the teachers and the school board who are natives of here. And the president, I don't think, should be touching the schools.

SANCHEZ: Gillespie says President Bush has federalized public education, something he never dreamed the Republican Party would support. On the other hand, whatever advantage Democrats once had on the issue of education has disappeared, in large part because of Mr. Bush's aggressive education agenda. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows 43 percent of voters trust President Bush on education; 44 percent trust Kerry. Pollsters say that's unlikely to change between now and November. The way some educators in Wood County see it, though, maybe it's not such a bad thing that education is not a wedge issue this election year.

Unidentified Man #3: Odd rows are on your right, even rows on your left. Come on, folks. You all got the high school education. You ought to be able to figure this one out.

Mr. TOM ESCHBACHER (High School Principal): Should not put that on the radio.

SANCHEZ: Tom Eschbacher is a Republican, a Bush supporter and principal of Parkersburg South High, the school that hosted President Bush back in May. A gregarious man with a buzz haircut and an uncanny ability to get teen-agers to behave at graduation ceremonies, Eschbacher says education has become too politicized.

Mr. ESCHBACHER: I think that when you start drawing lines and one party is saying, `This is what's best for people or this is what's best for kids,' and another party is saying, `No, this is what's best for kids,' you get the feeling that they're disagreeing just to disagree. And I think the division in this country is a horrible thing.

SANCHEZ: Eschbacher doesn't think either party has a monopoly on the best ideas for fixing public education, and he seems to speak for a lot of people in Wood County, Republicans and Democrats alike, when he says, `Americans are already divided over way too many things this election year. Why add education to that list?'

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Excerpts of speeches on education by President Bush and Senator John Kerry are at npr.org.

— Renee Montagne, host ; Claudio Sanchez reporting
National Public Radio
2004-06-24
npr.org


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