Education Reform, One Year Later

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, amid much self-congratulatory backslapping, President Bush and congressional Democrats hailed their bipartisanship in adopting a broad revision of federal education policy. What a difference 365 days and an approaching presidential election make.

On Wednesday, as Bush marked the first anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act by touting his devotion to education, his erstwhile Democratic allies stayed away from the gathering while questioning his fealty to the cause.

The war of words foreshadowed a year of anticipated partisan divisions on economic policy, health care, judicial nominations, energy proposals and a host of other issues as Republicans and Democrats begin sharpening their differences for the 2004 campaign.

The flap over education centered on federal funding for states to carry out the reforms required by last year's law. Bush emphasized the unprecedented federal spending on education -- $22 billion annually.

But on Capitol Hill, Democrats accused the president of not living up to his commitment to spend billions more.

On the sidelines, at least for now, state officials already facing deep budget deficits are growing fearful that the economic stimulus proposal Bush unveiled Tuesday could further hurt their schools.

Bush's $674-billion plan would eliminate the corporate dividend tax, which could cost states an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion a year in revenue. That could force state officials already struggling to produce balanced budgets to make additional spending cuts, including in education.

"The governors believe in the goals" of the education reform act, said an official of the nonpartisan National Governors Assn. "But is [education funding] a concern? I hear it between the lines."

The education law -- supported by liberals such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) -- gave states and local districts more leeway in spending federal dollars. But in return, the law requires them to annually test reading and math skills and intervene in schools that persistently fail to improve. It toughens teacher standards. And it allows parents to transfer their children to better schools, or receive funds to pay for after-school tutoring.

In his East Room remarks Wednesday, as he lauded the law's key elements, Bush also took on his Democratic critics.

"The main reservations we've heard in the year since we passed the reform have come from some adults, not the children, who say the testing requirement is an unfunded mandate on the states," he said.

"Well, that's not true. We put up $387 million to provide for testing, to pay for the testing in this year's budget. I intend to ask for the same amount next year. We demanded excellence. We're going to pay for the accountability systems to make sure that we do get excellence."

Moreover, he said, "over the last two years, we've increased funding for elementary and secondary education by 49%. That's a large increase."

On Saturday, Bush announced that he would seek a $1-billion increase in education-related aid for low-income children. But Kennedy and Miller -- who had joined Bush at the bill-signing ceremony a year ago -- said federal funding is insufficient, especially given the budget crises in the states.

"The president's proposed $1-billion increase in what he claims is his top domestic policy priority leaves over 5 million needy children behind," Kennedy said. Miller said that, based on what Bush has indicated, the administration's 2004 education budget would fall "more than $6 billion short" of the $18.5 billion called for by last year's law.

"The success of the [law] is at a crossroads," Miller added. "We are, most assuredly, leaving millions of children behind."

At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush is "very sympathetic" to the needs of the states. He added that the president's economic stimulus plan would help improve their budget problems.

"He is aware of the difficulties they can go through, and he has announced a program that, in his judgment, will be very helpful to the states," he said.

Among the special guests at the event were principals from around the country. California was represented by Lorraine Fong of Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood.

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