George W. Bush is set to assume the presidency this month with a commitment to bipartisan collaboration in improving the nation’s public schools. Both Democrats and Republicans believe that this goal is achievable, depending on the specific areas of his campaign agenda that he prioritizes. According to Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant education secretary under President George Bush, education could serve as a means for Bush to unite people, as there are many aspects of his education plan that align with the Democrats’ agenda. Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington state agrees, stating that there is a reason to believe that they can work together. However, she warns that if the bill ends up diverting funds away from public schools, it will face challenges in the Senate.
In his efforts to appeal to both parties, President-elect Bush has made a promising choice for education secretary by selecting Rod Paige, the superintendent of schools in Houston. Paige’s nomination has received widespread praise, and he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate without much opposition. Bush also demonstrated his commitment to bipartisanship by convening a meeting with approximately 20 Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Austin, Texas, to discuss education. According to Representative Michael N. Castle, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, the meeting was filled with lively exchanges, but there was also unexpected harmony.
One of the main issues that could pose a challenge to bipartisan cooperation is the topic of school vouchers. Bush has proposed allowing students in consistently underperforming schools to use a portion of the federal Title I aid, along with state funds where permissible, to help cover the costs of private schooling or other educational alternatives. Some Democrats, including Senator Evan Bayh from Indiana, suggest that there is potential for bipartisan support if the consolidation of federal education programs is coupled with increased flexibility, strengthened accountability, and additional federal funding for states and districts. However, most Democrats draw the line at cooperating on vouchers, believing that it could jeopardize other aspects of the education initiative. Senator Bayh stated that Bush needs to be both principled and practical in his approach. While Bush understands the tight balance of power in the Senate, it is unlikely that he will allow the contentious issue of vouchers to derail the entire initiative, according to Senator Tim Hutchinson from Arkansas.
A news article published on January 2 in The Washington Post caused a stir by suggesting that Bush might not prioritize the voucher element of his agenda, instead using it as a symbolic gesture to appease conservatives. However, a spokesperson for the Bush-Cheney transition, Scott McClellan, refuted this claim and stated that school choice for students in underperforming schools remains a crucial part of Bush’s education agenda for the coming year.
Apart from the vouchers debate, Bush’s goal of achieving an early victory in education may face other challenges. It is still unclear what legislative strategy the president-elect has in mind. While he has indicated that his first bill will address schools, McClellan did not confirm whether it will be a comprehensive measure that encompasses various aspects of the federal role in education, such as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or a narrower proposal, such as a reading initiative, which may stand a better chance of quick passage in Congress. According to McClellan, announcements will be made when the time is right, as the plan is a work in progress. During the Austin meeting, some members of Congress suggested that Bush should prioritize his K-2 reading initiative. Representative Castle pointed out that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is a complex piece of legislation that cannot be easily passed without careful consideration.
He stated that if Mr. Bush’s campaign proposal to focus on early literacy and transfer Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education were included in a reading package, it would certainly ignite a significant debate.
Finding common ground
However, lawmakers from both parties express some optimism that they can eventually reach an agreement with the president-elect. Rep. George Miller of California, the new ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement last week that his recent meeting with President-elect Bush in Austin leads him to believe that there is room for a great deal of agreement, especially on education. Before the Austin meeting, Mr. Miller mentioned that he was encouraged by the president-elect’s focus on setting high standards, demanding accountability, and closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers. Mr. Miller noted that these ideas were important elements of a deal worked out by House Democrats and Republicans the previous year as part of the proposed ESEA reauthorization. According to the California Democrat, there is an opportunity for collaboration, but a lot depends on how Mr. Bush handles the political challenges when he takes office. Mr. Miller highlighted the importance of Mr. Bush’s position on certain issues when dealing with Congress and navigating the politics within the Republican caucus in the House, which includes some conservative members in leadership positions that have expressed skepticism towards a strong federal role in education and have been advocates of school vouchers.
Plans for education savings accounts
While school vouchers are expected to be a contentious topic in the upcoming education debate, another proposal that is likely to resurface this year indirectly opens the door for the federal government to assist with private school tuition costs through education savings accounts. President Clinton vetoed a similar plan as part of a larger tax package last fall, but it received 61 votes in the Senate last year, including those of seven Democrats. Under the proposal, families could contribute up to $2,000 per year to tax-free interest earning education savings accounts. Parents could then use the funds for various K-12 and higher education expenses, including private school tuition, uniforms, books, and other supplies. Erika Lestelle, an education policy analyst for the Family Research Council based in Washington, is optimistic about the chances of passing such legislation. She stated that passing such a law is one of the organization’s top education priorities. During his campaign, Mr. Bush expressed support for education savings accounts, which are currently only available for higher education costs.
Focusing on the original agenda
Mr. Bush unveiled numerous other education proposals during his campaign, ranging from improving math and science instruction to forgiving college loans for teachers. However, it remains uncertain to what extent these proposals will be pursued now. Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, suggests that many of these proposals may have distracted from Mr. Bush’s original agenda. According to Mr. Finn, the campaign initially laid out a comprehensive package based on a coherent set of principles, emphasizing flexibility, accountability, testing, and school choice. However, the campaign shifted to announcing new programs regularly, which distracted from developing a cohesive plan. Mr. Finn, who served as an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, feared that the campaign was focused more on numerous scattered initiatives instead of designing a comprehensive strategy.
While the new Department of Education leadership is still being formed, with no other appointees beyond Mr. Paige announced at this time, Mr. Bush has assembled an education transition team that includes individuals who advised the campaign on school issues. This team includes Margaret LaMontagne, Mr. Bush’s senior education adviser in Austin. Additionally, he has named 31 members to an external advisory group that will provide further guidance. This group consists primarily of conservative-leaning education officials, experts, and a few business leaders from large corporations. However, some members of the advisory team have expressed uncertainty about what role the group is expected to play and doubt that they will gather for policy discussions. Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, praised Mr. Paige’s nomination but was less enthusiastic about the external advisory group and its composition.
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