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Partisan Politics Puts Its Imprint on N.G.A. Meeting

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WASHINGTON An attempt by the nation's governors to maintain the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that has characterized their work on education over the past few years careered out of control here last week, as they engaged in a heated debate with President Bush and with each other about the Administration's economic policies.

As chairman of the National Governors' Association, Gov. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a Republican, had made development of state strategies to achieve the national education goals the theme of the governors' winter meeting.

Indeed, a large part of the four. day agenda was devoted to the work of three "action teams" of governors and business leaders in the areas of school readiness, the school years, and lifelong learning. The focus of the yearlong initiative is to help each state make progress toward one or more of the goals by identifying successful approaches to systemic reform.

But Governor Ashcroft's decision to keep a formal discussion of Mr. Bush's economic package off the table backfired when the demand of a group of Democratic governors to be heard touched off a partisan confrontation that frayed tempers and dominated media coverage of the event.

"You do not come to meetings like tiffs and get some sanitized agenda," complained Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas, a Democrat. "We're not going to all come up here and say, 'Look, isn't it great. We've got a budget we don't agree on. And an education agenda that doesn't really provide any more money for the states.'" "Our problem is not economic growth," she told the governors.

"Our problem is decline. We can't sit here and hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,just because somebody's got their nose out of joint that we have to be from different parties."

'An Open Debate'?

The already tense situation escalated after a meeting with Mr. Bush at the White House, during which Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, insisted that the press not be escorted from the room before "an alternative point of view" could be heard.

Governor Romer's request followed a set of opening remarks in which the President urged the governors to help him gain approval for his budget package on Capitol Hill, including passage of his America 2000 education strategy.

Mr. Romer charged that the President's budget contained some accounting "gimmicks."

The Colorado Democrat also argued that the governors needed to be part of an "open debate" about the fairness of the tax structure and whether Mr. Bush has cut enough from defense. The President has proposed cutting $50 billion from defense over five years, but some Congressional Democrats have recommended slashing up to $100 billion.

The interruption clearly rankled Mr. Bush, who shot back: "[W]hat bases do you want to close? What areas do you want to shut down? What weapon systems do you want to knock off right now? Where do you want to lay off the people?"

The next day, the governors revisited the issue in a tense 45-minute de- bate back at their hotel, but failed to reach any agreement on what needs to be done to stimulate the economy.

They adopted a resolution offered by Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, a Republican, that urged the President and the Congress to "act together to create jobs and economic opportunity immediately."

The resolution also stated that the growth package should not increase the deficit. But the governors admitted that they disagree on the elements of such a growth package.

A separate resolution on economic recovery, released by the Democratic Governors' Association shortly after the meeting, said: "States cannot invest in education if the Administration continues to place new responsibilities on the states and mandate spending of funds which would otherwise be directed to education."

"We need more than slogans," the statement continued. "We need investment in our future and our children's future."

'Nothing More Vital'

By the end of the debate, the governors appeared eager to leave town and engage in a little damage control.

At a closing press conference, Governor Ashcroft said he was "embarrassed" by Mr. Romer's actions, "because we were in the White House and he countermanded the directions of the President."

"Now, does this mean I can never work with Roy Romer?" he asked.

Both Governors Romer and Ashcroft serve on the National Education Goals Panel. Mr. Romer is also vice chairman of the N.G.A.

But in a veiled threat, Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, warned that, unless Governor Romer "takes action" to avoid a similar occurrence in the future, it could affect the working relationship between the two parties.

Governor Ashcroft said he expects Mr. Romer to continue pushing for educational innovations next year, during the Coloradan's chairmanship of the organization.

Mr. Ashcroft said that he chose this year's theme to refocus the N.G.A.'S attention on education. "There is nothing more vital to jobs in America and to the economic survival of society than a well-educated workforce," he said.

He added that the action teams were designed to move "from the sort of pilot-project mentality in education to systemic and structural change."

Members of the teams or their delegates have conferred by phone and in person over the past several months. The readiness team, for example, has conducted a survey of what states are doing to promote interagency collaboration and a broader definition of children's services.

The school-years team has been exploring how private-sector strategies for change, such as benchmarking, could be applied to the public schools. They are also considering the creation of a "talent bank" of experts who could share and expand upon successful initiatives.

The lifelong-learning team is focusing on ways to stimulate private'sector training of the workforce and to strengthen the school-to-work transition. It is also considering creating a "tool kit" for states to aid them in the development of a skilled workforce.

'Healthy' Discussion

During the meeting, the governors adopted a formal resolution to reconfigure the membership of the National Education Goals Panel and to clarify its role in certifying "world-class standards and criteria for assessments." ('See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1992.)

Mr. Ashcroft also awarded the first annual chairman's award for excellence in performance reporting to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming for the quality of their report cards on meeting the national education goals.

At the end of the meeting, Governor Romer said, "There are some fundamental questions that have now been raised, and I think it's healthy."

"Governors are going to begin to look in substantially more detail as to what's in the federal budget," he said.

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