latimes.com: For a start, education reform offers Bush a policy path of least resistance
(Los Angeles Times) -- Now that George W. Bush has passed his final exam in electoral arithmetic, his first legislative emphasis ought to be as easy as ABC: education.
In a Congress divided evenly between the parties, almost any of Bush's other campaign priorities promise to start his administration with a storm. Bush's call for an across-the-board cut in income tax rates would leave blood on the floor. His plan to carve out individual investment accounts from Social Security has only minimal Democratic support--and the stock market's recent gyrations will unsettle even some Republican backing for the idea. Modernizing Medicare, as Bush proposed, is a worthwhile end, but it will take time to build a bipartisan consensus about how to do it.
By contrast, in education some of Bush's key ideas already enjoy support from centrists in both parties. "On the subject of education there is some preexisting bipartisanship," says Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "If both sides are willing to not insist on their most ideological elements, I think we could get this done." Bayh, in fact, co-sponsored a Democratic education bill last year that resembled Bush's school reform blueprint more than Vice President Al Gore's competing plan.
That bill offers Bush not only the opportunity for a substantive compromise but also a political coup. Besides Bayh, its other principal author was Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gore's running mate. The new president couldn't find a better way to heal the bitter wounds of Florida than to christen his administration with a Bush-Lieberman initiative.
What would an education compromise between Bush and centrist Democrats look like? It would start with Bush's top education priority: a restructuring of federal education programs that offered states a trade of flexibility for accountability. Bush wants to consolidate more than 60 existing federal education programs into five broad "block grants" that states would have more freedom to spend as they desired. In return, he says, states would be required to test every student in math and reading--using exams the states designed themselves--each year from the third through eighth grades. States that improved student performance would receive extra money; states that didn't could lose some federal funds.
Liberal Democrats, who recoil from any sort of block grant, would resist that idea. But the Bayh/Lieberman bill took a similar approach, and Bayh thinks the Texas governor's version would prove acceptable to the 13 centrist Democrats who voted for it on the Senate floor last year. "That's not a problem for the moderates," Bayh says.
Democrats might prefer to provide a common yardstick for the state tests by creating voluntary national tests in reading and math, as Gore and President Clinton proposed. But that idea is anathema to Bush, who believes it would give Washington too much leverage over local curriculum decisions. To reach a deal with a President Bush, Democrats would almost certainly have to concede that point.
Two other disputes--one relatively easy to solve, the other devilish--stand between Bush and a bipartisan education deal. Money should be the easier problem to solve. In the campaign, Bush proposed only minimal new education spending. To attract Democrats, he'd have to ante up, probably in the range of the $35-billion, five-year package Bayh and Lieberman proposed.
The toughest issue to resolve will be vouchers. Bush sees school vouchers as the ultimate enforcement mechanism in his accountability system. If a school fails to improve student performance for three years, he says, parents should be allowed to convert their child's share of federal Title I funds (the program that provides extra aid for low-income children) into a voucher they can use for tutoring or to pay private school tuition; in Bush's plan, the states would be required to provide the parents with an equal sum, which would make the voucher worth $1,500 in all.
Including any form of vouchers in an education bill will shrink the number of Democrats and even moderate Republicans who might vote for it. (In their meeting with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney last week, House Republican centrists were notably cool to the idea.) But the issue is so important to Bush's base that "he can't just walk away from it," says Pete Wehner, policy director at the conservative think tank Empower America.
Maybe so. But the overwhelming rejection of ballot initiatives to create vouchers in California and Michigan last month weakens Bush's hand. In Michigan, even a majority of Republicans voted against a state system virtually identical to the one Bush proposed, according to exit polls. For him now to mandate that system on that state--and all 49 others--seems like a nonstarter.
Is there a way out? One way Bush could soften resistance to vouchers is adopt a good idea from his rival. Gore persuasively argued that Bush's blueprint was flawed because he offered struggling schools no additional help until he dropped the atom bomb of vouchers in the third year. More moderates on both sides might accept vouchers after three years if Bush accepted Gore's plan to offer troubled schools financial aid--conditioned on tough reforms, including procedures to dismiss poorly performing teachers--in years one and two.
That, by itself, wouldn't guarantee a majority for vouchers in either chamber. Probably Bush's only chance to squeeze the idea through Congress is to make his voucher program optional for the states. One approach would be to create a pilot program in a few states that chose to participate.
Or, Bush could offer to convert the federal share of Title I into a voucher at poorly performing schools after three years but allow states to decide whether to match it. That variation would have two advantages: First, it would better fit Bush's emphasis on state flexibility, and, since most states probably wouldn't provide matching funds, the voucher would be large enough only to buy parents after-school tutoring, not to help them move their children to private schools. Schools would still face pressure to improve, for fear of losing the federal funds that would be diverted into the voucher but not the threat of a wholesale exodus by students--the sticking point for voucher critics.
Either way, flexibility--for the states and in his negotiations with Democrats--would be the most important lesson for Bush to remember when he finally gets the chance to put his education vision to the test in Congress.