- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

President Bush signed his education reform initiative - The No Child Left Behind Act into law one year ago next week. Passage of the legislation was a major victory for America's kids and education reformers. It was also a political win for Mr. Bush fulfilling one of his primary campaign promises and helping his party gain needed credibility on the issue. Yet those involved in boosting Republicans' standing on education see this year as both pivotal and perilous in maintaining momentum.
Leaders on the Hill believe a sustained and systematic strategy to protect and expand the progress made last year both substantively and politically is essential. So for advocates of effective education reform, it's time to go back to school.
Mr. Bush's emphasis on education reform paid handsome political dividends for his party. By concentrating on "education" during the 2000 campaign, and throughout his first two years in office, the President wiped out the Democrats' historical advantage on the issue. His policy initiatives and use of the bully pulpit shrunk the gap from a 23 percent GOP deficit in January 1999 on the question of "which party is more likely to improve education" to a virtual tie in January 2002.
Nevertheless, those who oppose the President's reforms are not going quietly.
One of the first skirmishes will center on funding levels for education programs. A tight federal budget and the even more dire fiscal conditions in many states this year could put Republicans on the defensive right off the bat. House and Senate appropriators agreed to stick with President Bush's request for an overall budget figure of $750.5 billion in the fiscal 2003 budget. "This all but guarantees we'll be forced to under fund education at least from the Democrat's perspective," according to a senior Appropriations Committee aide.
Bracing for the coming onslaught, House Education and Workforce Chairman John Boehner, Republican of Ohio one of the congressional leaders planning this year's education encore knows the perils of arguing on liberals' terrain. "We can't get sucked into that; we have to maintain the moral high ground. If money solved all of our problems in education, we would have fixed the system a long time ago." Boehner points out that Republicans can keep the moral high ground on this issue by focusing on themes such as accountability, excellence and closing the achievement gap among the underprivileged.
Reformers will face another challenge this year when states file implementation plans for the No Child Left Behind Act. This is an extremely critical and dangerous point in the process, according to architects of the new law. States finding it difficult to meet the performance requirements will seek waivers, slowing the process of accountability and excellence contemplated by the Act.
"Those who don't want accountability will try to disable the new law at this point in the process," according to Boehner. He says letting states off the hook too easily on accountability goals would be a huge step backward. It's a major part of the education reform debate that Republicans must manage adroitly.
Finally, opponents of reform will attempt to apply old-school ideas to other education legislation scheduled for reauthorization this year, including higher education, vocational education and special education programs. In these three areas, as in the K-12 reforms last year, Republicans must trump the Democrats worn-out rhetoric, calling only for increased money without demanding results, accountability and excellence.
Despite these perils, Mr. Bush and the Republicans also have a unique opportunity to build on the successes of the last two years. One piece of this strategy includes relentlessly repeating their message on education. "When we stop talking about the issue we lose ground to the Democrats," one Republican strategist said. Mr. Boehner added he encourages his colleagues to visit schools in their districts as often as possible: "The best way to get Republicans talking about education is to get them to go to schools and meet with parents, teachers, students and administrators."
Mr. Bush and his backers in Congress, however, must maintain moral clarity on the issue, stressing the need to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Losing the high ground on the education issue means fighting over spending more money a sport where liberals always have the home-field advantage.
Education always rates among the top voter concerns rivaling defense and the economy in most polls. Yet continuing progress means talking positively and creatively about the issue, ensuring proper implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and applying the reform principles from the new law to other areas such as higher education, vocational education and special education. Congress has the opportunity to do all of this in the next two years. Stay tuned for an education encore, coming soon to schools near you.


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