- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

ST. LOUIS — President Bush yesterday began the election year with the first of many political events aimed at securing a second term by outspending and outmaneuvering Democrats.

The president rallied Republican activists at a Bush-Cheney fund-raiser, but only after emphasizing his “compassionate conservative” agenda by celebrating the two-year anniversary of his signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Making sure every child is educated is the number one domestic priority of this country,” Mr. Bush said at an inner-city school where most students are black. “It is essential we get it right.”

The event was designed to showcase the president as a moderate Republican who is willing to expand the federal government even if that means irritating his conservative base. More than two decades after President Reagan vowed to abolish the Department of Education, Mr. Bush expanded it by signing the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002.

Almost two years later, most of the criticism is coming from liberals such as Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean, who yesterday accused Mr. Bush of failing to adequately fund education.

“As President Bush ‘celebrates’ the anniversary of No Child Left Behind today, communities across our country are raising property taxes to buy their children’s textbooks, pay teachers, and, in some cases, keep school doors open,” Mr. Dean said in a statement.

The broadside came 24 hours after Mr. Dean bickered with other Democratic presidential candidates over whether the law should have been passed in the first place.

“The proper role of the federal government in education is not to pass bills like No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Dean said at a Democratic debate in Iowa.

That drew a strong rebuke from Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

“Anybody who says they’re going to pull back and repeal No Child Left Behind is turning their back on the students, and particularly the low-income students of America,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I won’t do that.”

The issue is awkward for several Democratic presidential hopefuls who voted for the president’s bill, only to turn against it later.

“I voted for No Child Left Behind,” said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. “But the truth is that we put too much faith in a Bush administration administering that policy.”

He added: “Forget No Child Left Behind. No question that it is doing damage.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was defensive about having voted for the bill.

“It’s easy to bash somebody who voted for something you don’t like,” he said. “But there’s nothing in the No Child Left Behind Act that requires it to be implemented the way this administration is doing it.”

He added: “This administration is doing to the school system of America what it did to school systems of Houston and in Texas. They’re faking it. And they’re punitive to teachers. They’re disrespectful to teachers.”

The legislation’s anniversary illustrated how partisan the political debate has become since two years ago, when Republicans and Democrats were still largely united in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In fact, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, publicly appeared with Mr. Bush to celebrate its passage on Jan. 8, 2002. But yesterday, the Massachusetts liberal blamed the president for not fully funding the measure.

“Funding only 65 percent of the No Child Left Behind Act, as President Bush would, in my book is a D minus grade,” Mr. Kennedy said in a statement.

Mr. Bush made no reference to such Democratic criticism when he toured the Pierre Laclede Elementary School and then joined five black women onstage for a round-table discussion of education.

Yesterday’s fund-raiser hauled in $2.8 million for the Bush-Cheney campaign, which raised more than $120 million last year. Part of the cost of yesterday’s trip to St. Louis was borne by the campaign because of the political event.

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