Crisis Shelves President’s Focus On Education

By Erik W. Robelen — September 19, 2001 5 min read
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It was supposed to be a week in which the White House would emphasize education.

President Bush hosted a forum on reading at an elementary school in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 10. But Tuesday, just minutes before he arrived at a school in Sarasota, a series of violent events began to unfold that compelled a radical change in plans.

Even as Mr. Bush met with a class of 2nd graders, a top aide whispered in his ear that a second airplane had struck the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America,” the president told an audience gathered at Emma E. Booker Elementary School minutes later. “I, unfortunately, will be going to Washington after my remarks. Secretary [Rod] Paige and the lieutenant governor [Frank Brogan] will take the podium and discuss education.” Mr. Bush offered some brief comments, then abruptly left the school, headed for Air Force One.

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“It was going to be a talk about the education reform bill and reading,” Sandy Kress, the president’s chief education adviser, said in an interview last week. “But events interrupted that.”

And with that, a weeklong campaign the White House had dubbed “Putting Reading First” was effectively over.

“This is the week that now becomes totally devoted to helping the wounded and helping the families, and dealing with the national crisis,” said Mr. Kress, who traveled with the president to Sarasota.

The school visits in Florida were part of a coordinated White House effort to focus on reading and pressure Congress to complete work on one of Mr. Bush’s top legislative priorities: a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Letters From Mrs. Bush

In fact, at the same time that the president was in Sarasota, first lady Laura Bush was preparing to testify before a Senate committee on early-childhood education. But that Sept. 11 hearing was canceled (and all congressional offices evacuated for the day) shortly after the Pentagon was struck by an airplane in a further incident of terrorism soon after the New York attack.

The next day, Mrs. Bush wrote two letters to be shared with schoolchildren nationwide; one for elementary students, the other for middle and high schoolers.

“Many Americans were injured or lost their lives in the recent national tragedy,” she wrote to elementary schoolchildren. “I want to reassure you that many people—including your family, your teachers, and your school counselor—love and care about you and are looking out for your safety.”

President and Mrs. Bush had planned to host a White House Assembly on Reading at the Library of Congress last Thursday. That, too, was canceled.

Secretary Paige urged school administrators to observe a moment of silence in schools as part of the Sept. 14 National Day of Prayer and Remembrance proclaimed by the president.

When Mr. Bush was in Jacksonville, he discussed the importance of reading and several initiatives to help improve reading instruction. He also used the occasion to call on Congress to produce a final education bill.That process has taken much longer than Mr. Bush had hoped.

“Now, one [education bill] has passed the House and one has passed the Senate,” Mr. Bush said in Jacksonville. “And it’s now time for people to act in the nation’s capital and get the bill to my desk, so that people at the local level can start to plan and start to strategize, and to make things happen in a positive way.”

ESEA Work Continues

Leaders of the House and Senate education committees issued a joint, bipartisan statement Sept. 12 vowing that the terrorist attacks would not interrupt their work to complete the legislation.

“We are all in agreement that despite yesterday’s tragedies, final work on the education bill will continue,” said Reps. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif., and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

They said that out of deference to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Major R. Owens, both Democrats from New York, a House-Senate conference meeting planned for last Thursday was postponed so the two lawmakers could attend to matters regarding the New York City attack.

But that will not stop progress on the bill, the four top education lawmakers declared.

Other education-related work on Capitol Hill was interrupted last week, however.

First, Tuesday’s hearing on early-childhood education was canceled. Even after lawmakers returned Wednesday, other hearings scheduled for later in the week in the House education committee were put on hold, including one on special education and one on educational research.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did hold a brief meeting Thursday, where it recommended approval by the Senate of Brian W. Jones’ nomination to become the general counsel for the Department of Education.

Last week’s grim events seemingly damped down talk of the inviolability of the so-called Social Security lockbox, the system’s multibillion-dollar annual surplus. Both Democrats and Republicans immediately said they were willing to spend whatever it takesincluding part of the Social Security surplusto repair the damage, aid victims, and retaliate against terrorists.

The elimination of that political obstacle could also free up money for education above Mr. Bush’s proposal, spending that Democrats have insisted should accompany the education bill’s requirements for increased testing and improved student achievement. The funding outlook has been clouded by recent estimates of much smaller budget surpluses than had earlier been projected. (“Lower Surplus Puts Squeeze on Education,” Sept. 12, 2001.)

Meanwhile, at Florida’s Booker Elementary, the events of last week won’t soon be forgotten. Sheila Weiss, a spokeswoman for the 36,000-student Sarasota County schools, said that, with all that happened, the day of President Bush’s visit produced a mixture of feelings.

“We had been so excited about his visit,” said Ms. Weiss, noting that school officials knew that one reason Booker Elementary had been selected was the progress students there have made in reading. “And then this horrible tragedy happened, and we’re witnessing history as [Mr. Bush] gave his first address to the world,” Ms. Weiss said.

“We were very, very honored to have him in our classroom,” added Sandra Kay Daniels, who teaches 2nd grade. “The kids were very excited to meet the president of the United States.”

Ms. Daniels didn’t hear of the attacks until after Mr. Bush left her room. Asked how Mr. Bush had fared in her class after learning the news, she said: “He tried. He did his best, but I knew something was on his mind because of the expression on his face.”

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