President-elect George W. Bush’s pledge to seek a bipartisan approach to improving the nation’s schools has a reasonable chance of success, observers from both major political parties said this week.
President-elect George W. Bush identified education as a top priority in his Dec. 13 address from the Texas State Capitol in Austin.
“There’s so much there of what he talks about which is not at all at variance with the Democrats,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and a former assistant secretary of education for President Bush, the president-elect’s father. “Education may be the window that he would reach out and use to bring people together.”
But Democrats cautioned that the prospects for bipartisanship depend greatly on what parts of his education agenda the Texas governor chooses to emphasize.
“Education is the issue the [public] wants the next president to focus on,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in an interview. “There is reason to believe that we can work together. ... But if the bill becomes a way to take money away from public schools, it’s going to be a 50-50 Senate that’s not going to let it go anywhere.”
Mr. Bush cited education as one of his top priorities Wednesday night in his first speech to the nation as president-elect, saying that there was “remarkable consensus” between his priorities and those of his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.
“Together, we will work to make all our public schools excellent, teaching every student of every background and every accent, so that no child is left behind,” Mr. Bush said.
During his campaign, Mr. Bush’s education platform combined a demand for greater accountability for student achievement with calls for more flexibility in the use of federal education aid. Mr. Gore also stressed accountability in education. In addition, Mr. Bush proposed a list of new initiatives on reading, teacher quality, school safety, and other matters that would increase federal education spending by a total of nearly $50 billion over 10 years.
One part of the Bush plan that drew strong opposition from Mr. Gore proposes giving federally funded education vouchers to students in chronically failing schools that receive federal aid under the Title I program for disadvantaged students.
Overall, both candidates made education top themes throughout their campaigns.
President-elect Bush’s Dec. 13 speech came one hour after Vice President Gore conceded defeat in one of the closest presidential elections in the nation’s history. The outcome was not resolved until 36 days after voters went to the polls Nov. 7.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Tuesday night effectively ended Mr. Gore’s challenge to Mr. Bush’s certification as the winner of Florida’s crucial 25 electoral votes. That gives the Texas governor 271 votes in the Electoral College, one more than the required majority.
Republicans will now control the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in nearly half a century. The Senate will be divided 50-50, but Mr. Bush’s vice president, Richard B. Cheney, can be called upon to break any tie votes, in accordance with his constitutional role as the body’s presiding officer. The House is expected to be divided 221-212, with two Independents.
Miller Sees ‘Opportunity’
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, who is expected to become the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee in January, said he was encouraged by President-elect Bush’s emphasis on setting high standards, demanding accountability, and closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. He noted that those ideas were important ingredients in an agreement worked out by Republicans and Democrats in the House last year as part of a proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Lawmakers ultimately failed to complete work on the legislation, which fell prey to partisan disagreements on other matters.
“I think there really is [an] opportunity here,” Rep. Miller said. But he added that a great deal depends on how Mr. Bush navigates the political terrain when he reaches the White House.
“Where does he plan on planting his flag when he comes to Congress?” Mr. Miller asked. “He’s got to sort through the politics of the Republican caucus in the House,” which includes some staunchly conservative members in key leadership positions who have been wary of a strong federal role in education.
Michael Pons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, which campaigned heavily for Mr. Gore, said he was pleased that the president-elect had chosen to emphasize education from the start.
“It was good on his part to say [he wants] to begin with education,” Mr. Pons said. “What parts of his program he chooses to emphasize makes a big difference [in whether it’s] a unifying or divisive start.”
For example, he said, Mr. Bush’s proposals for a new reading program and several initiatives to improve mathematics and science instruction would be welcomed. But, he added, “the voucher plan, obviously, is controversial.”
Education’s prominent role in the presidential race—as well as in many congressional campaigns—adds momentum for bipartisan agreement, said Bruno V. Manno, a trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, and an assistant education secretary during the first Bush administration.
“Both candidates focused relentlessly on the topic,” Mr. Manno said. “It seems to me that the lesson is loud and clear that something has to be done [on education].”
He pointed out that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Gore’s running mate, has advocated education policies that have a good deal in common with Gov. Bush’s agenda, particularly regarding the consolidation of federal programs and heightened accountability. And several of the freshman Senate Democrats to be sworn in next month, such as Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, are centrists likely to support such an approach, Mr. Manno added.
“I would see folks like that as being a conducive group” for reaching bipartisan consensus, he said.
CheckEducation Week on the Web(while the print edition is on a publishing break) in the coming weeks for additional coverage of education-related developments in the presidential transition.