When George W. Bush first announced his education proposal I praised it as something no less pervasive than the beginning of a new civil rights movement.
In a nutshell, his education initiative finally recognized that public schools were functioning, in effect, as a government monopoly. As such, there were no rewards for success and no consequences for failure. Get it? As inner-city schools failed to properly educate their children, well-to-do parents simply moved their children to the suburbs, creating a form of economic segregation. The tangible result was a performance gap between suburban and inner-city kids.
The Democrats' time-honored solution to the performance gap was simply to hurl money at the problem. But money alone did not confront the real problem: that public schools lacked proper accountability. In his education proposal, Bush endorsed vouchers as a means of stimulating competition amongst public schools, thus providing the necessary incentive to set higher standards and redress the performance gap between inner-city and suburban schools.
Unfortunately, something happened on the way to Congress.
When it came time to pass the proposal through Congress, Bush assigned the task of corralling Democratic support to Sandy Kress - Bush's education adviser who also happens to be a lifelong Democrat. Ostensibly, Kress' task was to make nice with the Democrats in general and ingratiate himself to the head of the education committee, Sen. Ted Kennedy, in the specific.
Dozens of meetings later, The Washington Post reported that Kress had succeeded. Eager anticipation of a new era of bipartisanship began to stud newspaper columns across the country. Though the Post likely meant it as a compliment when they labeled Kress' negotiations with Kennedy a success, several Republican leaders were beginning to tell the story differently. Privately, they complained that Bush was so desperate to secure his legitimacy with a legislative victory, that he was willing to pluck the meat from his own education proposal.
In the ensuing weeks, a long list of changes ensued. On May 2, they voted to strip school choice from the bill. The following day, a host of Democratic initiatives were tacked on, including the creation of a new $50 million school-based mentoring program, a $20 million increase in funding for migrant education, a $175 million increase for the new rural education program and an agreement to unconsolidated the safe- and drug-free Schools Act and the 21st Community Learning Centers.
At the time it did not seem to matter. Giddy at the prospect of having won over Sen. Kennedy, Bush's advisers hoisted their champagne glasses in celebration. They knew that their education proposal was now likely to pass congressional muster. In short, Bush had achieved his professed goal of winning over bipartisan support and distancing himself from the vitriolic infighting that too often hobbled his predecessor.
Just one thing: By letting vouchers fall by the wayside and by throwing more money at public schools than any president had previously imagined, Bush scooped out the soul of his own education proposal.
Not surprisingly, talk of bipartisan support has supplanted talk of Bush's education policy as a bold vehicle for change.
This rousing point has not been lost on several Republican leaders, who are privately wondering what does it profit the country to pass an education proposal, when the spirit that ought to animate such legislation has been bargained away?