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Education Seeps Into Presidential Debates

By Erik W. Robelen — October 20, 2004 3 min read
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President Bush and Sen. John Kerry were never asked directly about education during their three televised debates this month, but that didn’t stop the two presidential contenders from finding segues into the issue, whether it was questions about jobs or even abortion.

When Mr. Bush was asked during the final debate last week in Tempe, Ariz., if it was time to raise the minimum wage, he said he had at one time back ed such a plan, yet by his second sentence, he was shifting to a discourse on education.

“But let me talk about what’s really important for the worker you’re referring to, and that’s to make sure the education system works, it’s to make sure we raise standards,” he said. “Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act, when you think about it.”

Mr. Bush also spoke mostly about education earlier on Oct. 13 when moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked him: “What do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who’s being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?”

Mr. Kerry later used a question about abortion to talk, at least in part, about schools. He made clear he would not appoint a “high court judge” who didn’t support the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. But then he was off on an education tangent.

“We have a long distance yet to travel in terms of fairness in America,” the Democratic nominee said. “I don’t know how you can govern this country when you look at New York City and you see that 50 percent of the black males there are unemployed. When you see 40 percent of Hispanic children and black children in some cities dropping out of high school. And yet the president who talks about No Child Left Behind refused to fully fund by $28 billion that particular program so you can make a difference in the lives of those young people.”

By fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Kerry was referring to authorized funding levels. The estimated gap, however, between spending and authorization levels over the past several years is actually $26.6 billion, including the president’s fiscal 2005 request.

Republicans dispute the idea that the authorization levels amount to pro mises, saying that those levels are ceilings on spend ing, and that it’s not uncommon for federal programs to receive less money than authorized under law.

“He’ll tell you he’s raised the money, and he has,” Mr. Kerry said of his Repub lican opponent. “But he didn’t put in what he promised. And that makes a difference in the lives of children.”

“Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough,” Mr. Bush shot back. Overall spending for the Department of Education, however, has actually risen by 36 percent, including the president’s fiscal 2005 request.

Education and Jobs

President Bush’s suggestion that the No Child Left Behind Act was really a “jobs act” sparked criticism from Rep. George Miller of California, a leading Democratic architect of the nearly 3-year-old law championed by Mr. Bush.

“There is no question that a first-rate public school education is critical to helping people obtain meaningful and rewarding employment,” Mr. Miller said in an Oct. 14 statement. “But last night, the president deliberately tried to hide from his miserable jobs record, his long-standing opposition to raising the minimum wage, and his massive underfunding of No Child Left Behind when he spoke about education reform instead of the economy.”

John P. Bailey, a Bush campaign aide, said the president is willing to consider “any reasonable” plan to phase in a minimum-wage hike, but that Mr. Bush believes such a step needs to be part of a broader discussion about educational improvement and other issues.

Mr. Bailey also sought to emphasize his view that Sen. Kerry’s spending plans for education, health care, and other areas are not realistic. The Kerry campaign has said the senator would pay for his education and health-care proposals by undoing recent tax cuts for Americans earning more than $200,000 a year.

“My biggest concern is they’re making lots of promises that people are thinking they’re going to fulfill, when they’re admitting now that they can’t pay for them all,” Mr. Bailey said, pointing to remarks Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, made Oct. 10 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“If … at the end of the day, it becomes necessary to make sure we do not raise taxes on the middle class, then we will roll back some of our ideas,” Mr. Edwards said.

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