President's Edge on Education Dwindles

John Harwood
August 30, 2005

As another school year begins, the question for politicians is whether the education dividend President Bush hoped to bequeath his party is gone for good.

The education issue has been vital to Mr. Bush's hopes for expanding his party's appeal, especially among the swelling Hispanic population. He ran as a "compassionate conservative" who didn't hate government and would use it to expand educational opportunity for disadvantaged students unaccustomed to seeking help from Republicans. A March 2001 Gallup poll showed Republicans with an advantage over Democrats on the issue for the first time in the survey's history.

Today the president's signal education achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, is mired in controversy across the political spectrum. Democratic-leaning "blue states" and Republican-leaning "red states" are both complaining -- the former claiming inadequate funding and the latter resentful of what they consider federal mandates. A senior White House official says Democrats have regained a significant edge in public regard on education.

Mr. Bush's onetime partner on the issue, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, accuses the president of "turning his back on the millions of children, parents and teachers" by failing to devote adequate funding to No Child Left Behind. Bush aides dispute that the act, which requires states to give yearly reading and math tests to children in grades three through eight, has been underfunded. They say education has necessarily taken a backseat to more-urgent priorities such as Iraq and the economy, without erasing the long-term political benefits of the president's approach.

"We can narrow this [gap with Democrats] whenever we want to talk about it," the senior official says. For that reason, the official adds, "we welcome" developments such as the lawsuit that Connecticut filed against the Bush administration opposing No Child Left Behind, because they provide occasions for the administration to publicize its policy.

On school issues, Republicans in Washington have displayed a preference for local control and decision-making. In the 1990s, Republicans were burned by small-government conservatives who called for eliminating the federal Education Department which, whatever its flaws, symbolized a core priority for Baby Boom parents. When President Bill Clinton tangled with the Newt Gingrich-led Congress on the issue, Democrats grabbed an edge in public confidence of twenty percentage points or more.

Mr. Bush began turning that around when he sought the presidency after focusing on education as Texas governor. By Election Day 2000, he had largely neutralized Al Gore's advantage on the issue, and while he opened his presidency by taking a conservative line on issues such as taxes, education was the bipartisan exception. Mr. Bush made a common cause with Mr. Kennedy on legislation that increased federal education spending, while demanding accountability through testing requirements on local systems through the middle school level -- with consequences for those that didn't make the grade.

Both ends of that equation were popular with voters. As lawmakers completed work on No Child Left Behind, Democratic Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware hailed the president's approach as a new national consensus balancing federally mandated accountability and federal assistance.

Connecticut's lawsuit last week shows that those days are gone. Filed by Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and supported by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell, the suit alleges that No Child Left Behind has imposed on the state more than $40 million of mandates that Washington hasn't funded.

The Democratic-friendly Northeast and teacher unions aren't the only ones balking. The Republican-controlled legislature in Utah has voted to risk losing federal funds by ignoring some No Child Left Behind requirements in favor of its own standards. Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, appointed by Mr. Bush's gubernatorial successor Rick Perry, has risked federal sanctions by exempting some students from the requirements.

Sen. Kennedy says the administration and its Republican allies in Congress have fallen $39 billion short of federal spending necessary to fully implement the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the administration say such claims are the result of statistical manipulation, noting that federal education spending has increased about 50% on Mr. Bush's watch.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last week suggested states may fear that mandated tests will reveal shortcomings in their performance. The Education Department says No Child Left Behind has shown that it is working and cites improving test scores for Hispanic and African-American students.

Whether voters will credit Mr. Bush and his party in the current political storm isn't clear. The nation's governors, more than the administration, have been pushing to overhaul U.S. high schools. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in the spring, a 57% majority of Americans said the president had been placing too little emphasis on education.

The White House's focus largely has been on the war in Iraq and, domestically, its struggle to overhaul Social Security. Some Bush advisers argue that, considering the federal government's secondary role in overseeing schools, education isn't a first-tier presidential issue in any event. Today's Republican party reflects that view: Only a third of Republicans in the Journal/NBC poll said Mr. Bush was spending too little time on the issue.

Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the party's House campaign committee, says Republicans will gain no more from Mr. Bush's education stance than Democrats did from Mr. Clinton's support for welfare change. "The connection is totally personal," to Mr. Bush, agrees Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

This year, Mr. Bush proposed a second-stage agenda for No Child Left Behind that would expand federally required testing from elementary and middle schools into high schools. He has suggested spending $1.5 billion on that initiative. Republican members of Congress are eager to shift public attention from Iraq to domestic issues. But Mr. Bush's education proposal ranks low on their priority list.

"It's dead for this year," says Republican Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, who chairs an education subcommittee. Mr. Castle was more sanguine about the long-term promise of Mr. Bush's stance on the issue, adding, "It's a long way from getting rid of the Department of Education."