Why Bush's School Reforms Might Actually Pass

It was an extraordinary sight: a smiling George W. greeting liberal warhorse Teddy Kennedy at the White House on Day 3 of the Bush Presidency. Even more telling, the Massachusetts Democrat went out of his way to praise the Texas Republican's decision to put school reform ahead of more polarizing issues. "I have to commend the President for putting education first," Kennedy said.

With that kind of goodwill, it seems likely that Congress soon will pass an education reform measure. Leaders in both parties want to give local school districts more money for classroom needs. They also want states to boost standards--and live up to them--in exchange for more bucks from Washington. They disagree strongly over Bush's plan to create a voucher program that would let parents use federal dollars to send their kids to private schools. Yet even there, Democrats may be willing to allow a limited number of experiments.

"GREEK CHORUS." As many Republicans and Dems hail the emerging common ground, however, they are bedeviled by the details. And this bipartisan chumminess could be tested if Bush and the Dems can't persuade their wings--powerful interest groups on their left and right--to join the party. As the jousting begins, lawmakers are nervous, and for good reason. While improving education was central to every pol's election last November, there are plenty of pitfalls in supporting a final package that enrages key constituent groups.

Take the teachers' unions. They want federal dollars to go directly into raising teacher pay, reducing class size, and repairing dilapidated schools--just the type of federal mandates Bush abhors. Liberals also slam GOP plans to bundle federal funds into block grants that states can spend with few strings attached. They fear state legislatures will funnel money to wealthy suburban districts instead of to poorer rural and inner-city schools, where it's most needed.

The GOP's right wing wants the federal government to subsidize parents who send their children to religious or private schools or who teach their children at home. Also, conservatives balk at any hint of federal interference in local schools, including testing mandates.

White House and congressional leaders say they need Corporate America to lobby hard for the testing requirements. "We're counting on [business] to be our Greek chorus on accountability," says Bush domestic policy adviser Margaret La Montagne. Says John Schachter of the Business Roundtable: "The CEO voice will be heard."

But lawmakers fear that business will save its political capital for bigger goals, such as tax cuts or regulatory reform, rather than risk alienating ideologues on Capitol Hill. Without pressure from corporate execs, education reform could falter. "Businesses have to be much better advocates than they are today," says Representative James P. Moran (D-Va.).

For Bush, the fate of his No. 1 legislative priority, expected to cost more than $50 billion over five years, will echo far beyond the classroom. He desperately wants an early victory on education to build momentum for more contentious initiatives, such as tax cuts and Social Security reform. That's one reason the new Prez has signaled an openness to compromise on school reform. "If somebody has a better idea, I hope they bring it forward," Bush said on Jan. 23. But even the best ideas can get drowned out by the loud voices of special interests.

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