In 2000, as Texas Governor George W. Bush stumped for President, his emphasis on shaking up public education reinforced the message that he was a compassionate conservative who would reach out to America's underclass. As he decried the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that limited the horizons of inner-city children, Bush did more than appeal to moderate voters. Once in office, he pushed for passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in early 2002 -- an achievement that helped Republicans wipe out the Democrats' traditional advantage on support for schools.
But Bush's advocacy of education reform has proved to be a mixed blessing. Local school boards around the country -- joined by top Democrats such as John Kerry -- are howling about the tough new law. NCLB requires schools to meet performance standards by 2012. But critics, including many local officials, contend the Administration hasn't provided the funding or the flexibility for school districts to clear the bar.
With his sights set on suburban moms, Kerry has devised an answer. He wants $27 billion to "fully fund" the law, promises more leeway for states, and backs some form of teacher performance standards. In effect, Kerry is striking a bargain with teachers: advocating both higher salaries and the performance ratings their unions abhor.
Republicans can dismiss Kerry's approach as disingenuous, but they have a harder time coping with the backlash among suburban moms who are furious that schools are becoming teach-to-the-test Stepford outfits. Juanita Doyon, a Spanaway (Wash.) mother of four who is running for state school superintendent as an independent, has staked her bid on eliminating her state's exam. "[The test] has destroyed teaching and academic freedom," she says. Besides the testing issue, many localities are raising property taxes to pay for what critics call the largest unfunded federal mandate of recent times.
The anger and financial pain have hurt Bush's standing as a reformer. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted July 30-Aug. 1, 52% of registered voters said Kerry would do a better job on education, vs. 39% for the President. "Most people support the goals of No Child Left Behind," says Allan Rivlin of Democratic polling outfit Peter D. Hart Research Associates. "But many question Bush's follow-through."
Special Scoring for Special Ed
Still, the President hasn't ceded the fight. GOP boosters point out that school funding is up 49% since 2001. First Lady Laura Bush, a former teacher, has been talking up her husband's record in swing states. And the Education Dept. has modified its rules to make it easier for schools to measure up -- by getting a break on how they score tests from special-ed students and non-English speakers. But Kerry aides say that because of this change, a portion of the 28,000 schools that fell short last year will be given a passing grade -- just weeks before the November election.
While education has been eclipsed in the campaign by war, terrorism, and the economy, it can serve as a proxy for candidates' values. "Security moms" may have replaced "soccer moms" as the demographic group du jour, but they still have children in school -- and they want assurances that government is investing wisely in their futures. Clearly, that's an opportunity for Kerry, but it's also an opening for Bush, who argues compellingly that throwing money at the problem isn't always the answer.
Republicans are convinced that Laura Bush is a bigger political asset than John Kerry's outspoken wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. So in the aftermath of the Democratic convention, which featured a prime-time address by the nominee's wife, the Bush campaign has unleashed the popular First Lady to weigh in on some hot-button issues. Among the topics she recently has tackled during question-and-answer sessions and roundtables with women small business owners: stem-cell research, tort reform, and regulatory relief. GOP strategists think suburban swing voters will prefer Mrs. Bush's calm demeanor and demure manner to Mrs. Kerry's more assertive style. The First Lady also softens the hard-edged partisanship of her husband and the congressional leadership.
Texas Democratic activists understand why the Kerry campaign is writing off the Lone Star State. It is, after all, President Bush's home, and all of the statewide officeholders are Republican. But state Democratic loyalists took umbrage when the Democratic National Committee proposed that the state party send workers to swing states Kerry has a chance of winning. Texas political operatives pointed out that five Democratic representatives are fighting for their lives in new districts gerrymandered by the GOP. To punish DNC boss Terry McAuliffe, Texas Chair Charles E. Soechting is considering asking Lone Star Democrats not to open their checkbooks for the national party and instead send funds to Austin.