Education Dept. Enters Political Stage in Iowa

By David J. Hoff — November 19, 2003 5 min read
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President Bush’s signature education program entered the spotlight last week in Iowa, a state that is playing a central role in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and will be a key battleground in the 2004 general election.

U.S. Department of Education officials say that four “town hall” meetings held in the state were part of their efforts to explain the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the decision to hold the sessions in Iowa on four successive nights lent political overtones to the gatherings. Observers suggested that the meetings were an attempt by the Bush administration to highlight one of its chief domestic-policy achievements in Iowa at a time when Democratic presidential contenders are barnstorming the state, with some sharply criticizing the law.

Last week’s events signal that the federal school improvement measure is entering its most intense period of political scrutiny since President Bush signed it into law in January 2002. Many educators attending the Iowa meetings criticized the law, while some parents praised it for pushing schools to improve, according to press reports.

2004 Battleground

The president and his administration are pointing to the No Child Left Behind law “as one of the great things they have done,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “They’re concerned that the Democrats are going to turn this around on them.”

The administration needs to address the issue in Iowa, Mr. Squire said, because Democrats are getting attention as they vie for support in the state’s crucial Democratic Party caucuses on Jan. 19. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who in recent polls is running second in Iowa to U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, has been the candidate most critical of the law. (“On Trail, It’s Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act,” Nov. 12, 2003.)

Iowa will also be pivotal in the 2004 general election, Mr. Squire added. The Democratic nominee has won the state in every presidential election since 1988; Mr. Bush lost it by fewer than 5,000 votes in 2000. Iowa has seven votes in the Electoral College.

“Both sides are anxious to get their views out to Iowans,” Mr. Squire said.

Up for Grabs

The No Child Left Behind Act passed nearly two years ago with large, bipartisan majorities, including the votes of Rep. Gephardt and the other four current members of Congress in the Democratic race. How much it will help President Bush politically is an open question.

At last week’s town hall meetings, many Iowa educators complained that the law was placing too many demands on them without providing needed financial support, according to press reports. The statute requires states to test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. It also requires that they identify schools that are failing to make progress toward having all children reach proficiency by 2014.

“There’s a lot of frustration that I hear from superintendents when we meet,” Paul D. Tobin, the superintendent of the 350-student Preston district in eastern Iowa, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Tobin didn’t attend any of last week’s meetings.

While educators may not like the law, the general public may be more steadfast in supporting its goal of requiring schools to raise all students’ performance to reach proficiency, according to one Washington education lobbyist.

“If it’s cast as they’re being unfair to local school districts [by not providing enough funds to meet the law’s mandates], then they’ll be in trouble,” said Bruce Hunter, the public policy director for the American Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Squire said that Iowa citizens still aren’t aware of the details of the law, but that they support its goal. That may change, though, he said, once people start realizing that their local school has been labeled as failing to make adequate progress under the federal law.

In August, the state identified 12 schools as needing improvement, but removed one of them after its school district appealed the designation.

Iowa residents have bristled at the federal requirements for testing and accountability, which goes against their long-standing tradition of locally controlled schools. In the 1990s, Iowa was the only state that didn’t create a statewide system of standards and testing.

Partisan Squabbling

The merits of the No Child Left Behind law were somewhat overshadowed last week by a political back-and-forth about the nature of the town hall gatherings in Iowa.

Daniel Langan, a spokesman for the federal Education Department, said that the Iowa meetings were similar to other sessions about the law that the department has convened around the country. Last week, for example, department officials also held public forums in Georgia, Michigan, and North Dakota.

“These were nonpartisan, open, public meetings” in Iowa, Mr. Langan said. “People are trying to make political hay out of this where none exists.”

But Iowa Democratic Party officials said that the sessions had a partisan purpose, and they maintained that the Education Department had tried to keep their members from attending. They said that the department didn’t inform them of the meetings until late on Nov. 7, just a few days before the first town hall session, held Nov. 10 in Cedar Rapids. The other meetings were held in Davenport on Nov. 11, Waterloo on Nov. 12, and Des Moines on Nov. 13.

Ken Meyer, a former GOP legislator from Tennessee and a political appointee in the department, led all four meetings.He was joined by SusanSclafani, a top aide toSecretary of Education Rod Paige, at the Des Moines event.

A top Iowa Democrat said that no Democratic state legislators were invited to the events. The Education Department’s media advisory announcing the first session listed four Republican state lawmakers who would attend.

“If you want to come for a campaign event, that’s fine. Pay for it with campaign funds,” said state Sen. Michael E. Gronstal, the Senate minority leader. A publicly funded event should have, he said, “a broad-based invitation list.”

Invitations printed on White House stationery were mailed to local elected officials on Nov. 3, Mr. Langan said. Democrats were invited, he said, but he didn’t provide their names.

Mr. Langan pointed to the presence of several critics of the No Child Left Behind Act as evidence that the Education Department had no political motivations for the town hall meetings.

Democrats, however, said that the sessions only turned critical when the administration’s plan to keep them away backfired.

“This was supposed to be a round of applause for the president,” said Allison R. Dobson, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who voted for the measure but says the president has not supported enough funding for it. “But they’re getting a lot of opposition.”


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