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Education Plan: Congressional Leaders Discuss Meeting With Bush

Aired January 23, 2001 - 10:06 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's check in at the White House, where President Bush will be unveiling his first major policy initiative less than three hours from now.

Here's our senior White House correspondent John King.

John, good morning.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Daryn.

And the new president continuing to stand by his proposal -- he says it makes sense. He says if Washington is to spend so much money on education, that there must be accountability and consequences, and one way to have accountability is to allow parents to take their children out of failing schools if those schools do not improve performance and use the taxpayer money to go to private schools instead.

As you mention, the new president to unveil proposal later today. Just in advance of that, he brought in the key Democrats and Republicans in Congress who to sit on the education committees to give them a briefing on the first major policy proposal the new president will send the new Congress.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... education system has got -- have got the tools necessary.

KING (voice-over): Education is priority one for a new president looking to get off to a productive and bipartisan start.

BUSH: This is not a Republican issue. It's not a Democrat issue. It's not an independent issue. This is an American issue, and the most fundamental of all American issues.

KING: Mr. Bush sent his education wish list to Congress today, and highlights include a new testing regiment, designed to more closely monitor reading and math skills; a new spending formula that rewards schools where grades improve and cuts federal money to districts that don't show progress; and allowing parents in failing school districts to use tax dollars -- government vouchers -- to place their children in private schools. Democrats put education atop their agenda too, but most oppose the Bush voucher plan.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D) WASHINGTON: I can't think of any issue more contentious than the issue of taking public education money out of the public education system when our kids need it so desperately. Ninety percent of the kids in public schools -- go to public schools. We take that money away from them and send it to private schools, it's going to be a big battle here.

KING: The White house is open to a compromise on vouchers, perhaps a pilot program in some of the nation's poorest school districts. Teacher's unions are a powerful Democratic constituency and are voicing reservations about the new president's testing plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The public deserves a strong accountability system. But what we do not like is a single test on a single day used to make life decisions for our children. It's not only educationally unsound, but it's morally wrong.

KING: Another flashpoint will be efforts by Mr. Bush, a former governor, to use block grants to give states more flexibility in spending federal education money.


KAGAN: And we're going to have John stand by -- get more with him in just a moment.

Right now we want to go live to just outside the White House, where congressional leaders are talking about their meeting this morning with President Bush.


SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), EDUCATION COMMITTEE: ... education first on the national agenda. He did so in the course of the campaign and now he's doing so in Congress. And I'll think he'll get a very positive response.

As others have said, there are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and of support are very, very powerful. And it seems to me that we can make important progress.

The president emphasized the importance of accountability. He emphasized the importance of good, quality teaching in every classroom in the country. He emphasized the importance of literacy and reading. He talked about the importance of higher education and expansion of the Pell Grants, which is a very, very welcomed stand, I believe, and good support for early intervention, in terms of children, and making sure that the children that are most at risk are going to get the resources so that they will be able to continue their education and make up for any differences that they may have.

So I think these are the broad guidelines. I think all of us are familiar with, I think, how those can be done. And we're going to go back to work. He gave us the assurance that his secretary of education would be available in working with us. And we're looking forward to work through a program that can make a difference in ensuring quality education for the children in this country.


QUESTION: Senator Kennedy, are you concerned about the voucher plan that he's proposed? Can you describe your concerns?

KENNEDY: Yes. Well, the voucher issue, he talked about. His position is unchanged from the time of the campaign. And he mentioned his reasons for it, which he has stated at other times, and we understand that.

We have differences in that area. But as one who participated in there for close to an hour, the areas of which he pointed out and where we are in agreement, I thought were very substantial and are out there and can make a very important difference.

And I for one am interested in getting some action on the areas of education. We'll have an opportunity to deal with the issues as they come up, both in our committee and on the floor. I think what is important today is that we have a president that wants to make this a strong priority in education. And I think we have those that have leadership positions in the House and Senate that want to work with him and get something meaningful done.


KENNEDY: I think what he is prepared to do, it's best to ask him. He was asked about this even while we were there, and he is best to speak about it. We're going to have to meet our responsibilities; he'll meet his.

QUESTION: Senator Kennedy, if I could ask one other question, sir. During the election campaign, you joined with Vice President Gore, who was extremely critical of Governor Bush's education plan. I'm wondering what has changed since then?

KENNEDY: Well, what in -- I'm not sure -- what particular part was the -- I had general concerns about the block granting of various education programs, because I don't think then you would have the limited resources that are available at the federal level, which are seven cents out of every dollar -- you can give the assurance that they are going to go to the neediest child. And that, I think, is the basic philosophical difference that we were facing in the Senate, and which brought a deadlock in the education reauthorization.

This president is talking about guaranteeing that those scarce resources that are going to go there -- and he has given us the assurances that that's what he wants to do -- and that's the basis of an agreement.

QUESTION: Are you willing to go along with vouchers to get some of this other... KENNEDY: I've stated my position, and I've restated it here today. My own position is I don't think we ought to abandon the schools by taking money away from public schools in order to save them, and that's been my position for some period of time. But I can't reiterate strongly enough that this was discussed in a frank and open way. And the president understands that position, and he stated his position, but I can't emphasize enough the other areas where the president was reaching out I think in education and policy, and where there is very broad agreement and meaningful agreement and the basis for a very important education legislative initiative.

QUESTION: Do you think that this impasse over vouchers might be resolved by having a demonstration project to -- even that's been discussed here in the White House as a way of starting that process off.

REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER (R), OHIO: First, let me reiterate the president's position. The president isn't in a position of wanting to impose vouchers on any state or on any local school district. What the president's proposal is, is to give them to the option, to a school that has failed three consecutive years, has failed to improve itself and to provide a good education, that the federal dollars ought to follow the child. That's his proposal.

I believe strongly that if you identify failed schools and, as George Miller would point out, and we've provided assistance to help improve those schools, if after three years they continue to fail, we have to think about the child that's involved. Looking the other way, like we've done over the last several decades, is criminal behavior on the part of policymakers.

If you're really serious about leaving no child behind, it's time to take some serious steps to make sure that every child has an equal chance at a good education.


QUESTION: Senator Kennedy, if we could ask one more question: How is it that your...

KAGAN: All right, that looks like that one's wrapping up. You're looking at leaders from Congress, education leaders from Congress, commenting on their meeting that they had this morning in the White House with President Bush about his education platform he plans to present.

Let's bring our senior White House correspondent John King back in here.

John, I'm listening to Senator Kennedy and his remarks earlier. It seems like the key word here, our red-flag word here is vouchers. And yet, if you listen to the representatives of the Bush administration, they seem to think that they want to call it a parental choice instead of vouchers. Language being very important in selling a new platform. KING: Language very important because President Clinton in his eight years in office campaigned aggressively against Republican voucher proposals. And if you take a public opinion poll, vouchers doesn't test so well. Parent choice tests a lot better with the American people.

So the political debate there, the use of language in that political debate, very important.

Most of all, though, I think what you saw there, Senator Kennedy spoke and George Miller, a Congressman from California, a very liberal Congressman, nodded behind him. They are the makings of the Bush honeymoon.

These Democrats find themselves dealing with a different Republican president. Remember, after the 1994 election, when the Republicans took control of Congress, many wanted to abolish the education department, cut federal education spending.

They now have a Republican president here in the White House who wants to increase spending. He wants to do some things Democrats disagree with: vouchers, some of the testing, block grants to states, instead of strict federal rules on how to spend that money.

But he also wants to do a lot of things that Democrats agree with. So there is a consensus over the basic framework.

Make no mistake, though. The honeymoon will fade a little bit. And there will be a pretty sharp fight over vouchers.

KAGAN: All right, we will be watching along with your help. Thank you very much, John King, at the White House.



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