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Standing Bush in a Corner

Times Staff Writer

The new commercial jabs Jeb and George W. Bush, suggesting the Florida governor call on his brother, the president, to “fix No Child Left Behind so Florida’s kids can get ahead.”

In other advertisements, schoolteachers identified as Michelle, Nanci and Rosemary complain that President Bush’s landmark education law forces them to “drill students for standardized tests” instead of funding smaller classes and other programs “we know work.”

These television spots, broadcast in several politically competitive states, are part of an increasingly sharp struggle to shape voter perceptions of Bush’s education record -- a fight that could have a significant impact on his reelection chances. Their sponsor, a little-known group called Communities for Quality Education, is financed in part by teachers unions.

According to data compiled for The Times, the new interest group has spent more on televised political ads this month than any group other than the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns. An independent monitor, TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, estimated the interest group’s spending at $2.9 million from June 2 through Wednesday.

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At issue is a pillar of Bush’s domestic agenda. The No Child Left Behind law he signed in 2002 required states to test student proficiency in basic skills and set benchmarks for progress in exchange for more federal aid to struggling schools.

It marked a high point in his relations with congressional Democrats. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was a leading proponent of the bill. Sen. John F. Kerry, Kennedy’s Massachusetts colleague and now Bush’s presumed Democratic challenger, joined 86 other senators in voting for it.

But that consensus has frayed. And the growing attacks on No Child Left Behind loom as a potential setback for the president.

In 2000, Bush offered himself as a Republican concerned about education and committed to improving public schools. His message undercut a traditional advantage Democrats enjoyed among voters on the issue, polls found, and helped him win support from suburban voters.

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In 2004, though, No Child Left Behind may not pay Bush a similar political dividend.

Education reform “was one of the pieces of ‘compassionate conservatism’ that Bush actually followed through on in office,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “If the Democrats convince people that Bush has failed there, then it eliminates the major piece of evidence that Bush has lived up to his promise.”

Polls show the public still ranks Bush near the Democrats on education policy. But a survey for the nonpartisan Educational Testing Service in May and June found deep divisions over the new education law, with 39% of adults viewing it favorably and 38% unfavorably.

“So far the public has not embraced these reforms,” Democratic pollster Allan Rivlin said, presenting the survey’s findings this week at an education forum in Washington.

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Advisors to Bush and Kerry clashed over school reform at the forum, sponsored by the news journal Education Week and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

Bush aide Sandy Kress said the federal law had established “the moral imperative of educating all children.”

Kerry domestic policy advisor Robert Gordon responded, “President Bush has used education to score political points and not achieve real change.”

Also this week, Communities for Quality Education launched its ad criticizing the law and the Bush brothers in Florida. The group’s previous ads have run in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- all states closely contested in the presidential election.

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While much of the campaign has focused on terrorism and the economy, education remains a key concern for many voters. “Education is more than an issue -- it’s a value for this country,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “It’s a constant.”

The National Education Assn., a teachers union helping to fund the ads, is expected to endorse Kerry this year. But the union denies a political motive behind its criticism of No Child Left Behind.

“We’re looking at it purely from a standpoint of how schools can be successful, how students can be successful,” said the association’s president, Reg Weaver.

Though the jury is still out on whether the law is leading to stronger reading and mathematics performance among students who need the most help, few question that it has produced upheaval and controversy in many school systems across the country.

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Teachers are not its only critics. Some conservatives resent the federal government’s lengthening reach into what had long been predominantly a state and local matter.

The law has yielded some eye-catching revelations. In November, more than 26,000 public schools were found to have fallen short of “adequate yearly progress,” according to Education Week. That was more than 28% of schools nationwide. In California, more than a third fell short; in Florida, three-fourths.

While standards vary from state to state, the law generally requires school districts to pay closer attention to disadvantaged students and offer them extra options, such as private tutoring or public school transfers, when schools fail to advance.

The law’s architects meant to shake up the educational bureaucracy. But the emerging statistics are unsettling to parents who previously rated their own local schools highly, even if they thought others were in trouble.

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Some candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries turned No Child Left Behind into a punch line. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, for instance, said voters should “leave George Bush behind.”

Democrats have opened up another line of attack against the president: that his administration has failed to adequately fund the law.

Republicans say Bush has backed record levels of funding for elementary and secondary education -- a $12.2-billion-a-year increase from 2001 to 2005. Democrats say annual funding for disadvantaged schools is still $6 billion short of the $18 billion the law authorized.

One TV ad by the New Democrat Network, a Washington organization separate from the Kerry campaign, has sought to stoke the funding dispute. “President Bush, why did you break your promise?” a girl asks in Spanish in the ad.

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Her pitch is aimed at Latino voters, a bloc considered up for grabs. Pollsters say Latinos, more often than many other voters, rate education a top issue.

Fighting back, the president’s campaign in May ran a TV ad filled with schoolchildren and teachers that praised “the most significant education reforms in 35 years.”

With mass-circulation e-mails, defenders of No Child Left Behind also are mounting a public relations effort to debunk what they call myths about the law. The latest rebuttal, on Friday from the Business Roundtable, sought to reassure parents that the law did not limit what schoolteachers could teach.

Susan Traiman, a Business Roundtable official, acknowledged that the TV ads run by the law’s critics have taken a toll. “Anyone watching them who’s not informed would think: ‘Oh, this is terrible. I don’t want kids spending all their time being drilled on tests.’ ”

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