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An Unlikely Partnership Left Behind

The bipartisanship President Bush built with Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, promoting education policy has become strained.
The bipartisanship President Bush built with Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, promoting education policy has become strained. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)

Miller released a "discussion draft" with new programs and mandates to address problems in the original law. Attendance and graduation rates and other criteria would be considered along with test scores, and schools could track students as they advance, rather than just comparing one year's fifth graders with another's. Penalties would be eased for schools that just barely missed targets. But at a daylong hearing in September, lawmakers and lobbyists piled on. "They treated it as a pi┬┐ata," Miller said.

"At the end of the day, it may be the most tainted brand in America," Miller mused. "If a consumer went to the shelf, they would not pick No Child Left Behind." A major reason, he said, is the product sponsor. "There's more resentment that the law is connected with George Bush than anything else. It's the biggest anchor that you're trying to work with something that's considered his franchise."

'A Toxic Environment'

After another fruitless negotiating session between Miller and McKeon last month, McKeon said he asked aides to leave the room.

"George," McKeon asked, "is that the way it's going to be?"

"Well, this is pretty much where we are," Miller said.

Discouraged by the lack of progress, Bush decided to ratchet up the pressure. He invited civil rights leaders to the White House to remind Democrats that their own base has a strong interest in the program. A week later, with Miller in mind, Bush warned during a trip to Arkansas that he would veto a bill that diluted his core principles.

The back-and-forth came as new test results bolstered Bush's case. The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed math and reading scores rising and the gap between white children and black and Hispanic students shrinking. Bush aides saw vindication. "Obviously there have been complaints and there have been growing pains, but the proof is in the pudding," Kaplan said.

Still, Miller bristled at Bush's threat to veto his bill as well as a separate education funding measure. Two days later, Miller met with McKeon and Boehner.

"I explained to them that the walls are closing in here with this veto talk," Miller said. And with "five years of broken promises," he said, funding shortfalls could doom the effort.

"You know the president has said if you get him the reauthorization, he'll get you the money," he recalled Boehner answering.

Miller scoffed. "I bought a horse from that man once," he told Boehner. "I'm not going to buy another horse from him."

The White House pins its hopes on the Senate. "Kennedy is our best shot," said one official. But one deadline after another has passed with no progress. "Obviously this is a challenging time in Washington," Spellings said last week. "Some call it a toxic environment." Bush, she said, will not give up. "No Child Left Behind is identified more with George Bush than anyone. He campaigned for president on it. He has a lot of equities here."

When Kennedy underwent surgery to clear out an artery a few weeks ago, Bush called to wish a speedy recovery. The senator used the opportunity to give a more ominous forecast for No Child Left Behind. "I told him we still have a ways to go," Kennedy recalled.

Kennedy laments his early optimism. "I will plead guilty," he said in his office last week. "I thought we would have a faster kind of process." But, he said, "No Child Left Behind, rather than being a flagship for improved strength and enhanced opportunity of education for the children, has become a symbol of controversial, flawed and failed policy."

Asked if he still trusts Bush, Kennedy did not answer. But he was still able to compartmentalize.

"Although I have strong differences with him and have expressed them, especially with regard to Iraq, I also believe I'm here to get things done," he said, "and in the case of education, I'm strongly committed to trying to get things done. We've not given up and given in on it. But we're also realistic about the chances."

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