- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2001

Perhaps the most significant line in George W. Bush's Inaugural Address was his pledge that "Together we will reclaim America's schools before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives."

While skeptics may say Inaugural speeches are more about rhetoric than reality, history shows they provide important insights into who a president is and what his deepest beliefs are.

In that carefully crafted sentence, Mr. Bush signaled clearly that not only would education be central to his presidency but that the particular focus would be on America's most vulnerable children. The word "together" further telegraphed his belief that this cause can only succeed if pursued on a genuinely bipartisan basis.

Within days of the Inauguration, we saw much evidence not only of Mr. Bush's seriousness about education but of willingness on the part of key Democrats to embrace his calls for bipartisanship.

Even before being sworn in, Mr. Bush held well-publicized meetings on education with leaders of both parties. Thus, there was little surprise when his first policy proposals dealt with that subject.

In presenting his plans, the president's first sentence stated clearly that, "Bipartisan education reform will be the cornerstone of my administration." Mr. Bush's ideas about "Transforming the Federal Role in Education" rest importantly on the premise that "too many of our neediest students are being left behind," as illustrated by the "nearly 70 percent of inner city fourth graders unable to read at a basic level on national reading tests."

In highlighting the Achievement Gap between our neediest children and all others, Mr. Bush was seeking to lift the most praised aspect of his Texas education policies to the level of a national priority.

Literally within hours of Mr. Bush's proposals, there was strong indication that Democrats were ready to embrace this priority.

In a Press Conference held by Senate and House members of the "New Democrat Coalition," the spokesperson was the party's recent vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

Mr. Lieberman announced that the New Democrats were putting forward comprehensive education proposals that they were "happy to say" overlapped "significantly" with those of President Bush.

He also noted that "circumstances have never been better for breaking through the ongoing partisan stalemate."

Like Mr. Bush, he highlighted the Achievement Gap, stating, "It is simply unacceptable that 12th-grade black and Hispanic students read and do math on average at the same level as eighth-grade white students."

While not avoiding areas of disagreement with Mr. Bush (e.g. vouchers), Mr. Lieberman stressed that "we do share a commitment to closing that [Achievement] Gap as a national goal, just as we share a commitment to strengthening accountability, broadening flexibility for local schools, spurring innovation and promoting public school choice."

Too often observers reduce the education debate to "vouchers, for and against," but the real story here is the breadth of common ground between the parties.

More than anything, the chances for real substantive advance turn on the compelling magnetism of the Achievement Gap as an issue for both parties. The educational plight of our children of poverty and color represents a part of our country's agenda too long marked by failure.

A third of a century ago, Robert Kennedy called this failure a "stain on our national honor." Today, we have an unparalleled chance to redeem this moral deficit, if only this issue can be lifted permanently out of the mire of partisan bickering and controversy.

While governor of Texas, Mr. Bush showed uncommon gifts in taming that state's often brutal partisan politics. His success reflected a skillful selection and shaping of issues combined with a tireless outreach to legislators of both parties.

Though Washington is not Austin, nonetheless these talents may well be transportable.

At the same time, the New Democrat Coalition may be coming into its own in away it never could under Bill Clinton. As Mr. Lieberman's remarks indicate, the Coalition's education issues resonate well with the Bush agenda.

In their personal styles, Mr. Bush and Mr. Lieberman symbolize a "kinder, gentler" partisan dialogue that could allow these recent campaign adversaries to move the "new civility" from rhetoric to reality.

Already in the world's wealthiest nation, too many young lives have been struck down by ignorance and apathy. How wonderful if those predictions of political deadlock could be confounded by a bipartisan determination to end this tragic waste and offer new hope to our neediest children.

Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney is a member of the board of the Education Leaders Council, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of reform-minded state education officials.

Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney is a member of the board of the Education Leaders Council, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of reform-minded state education officials.

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