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An Unlikely Partnership Left Behind

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

It felt familiar, as if the past five years had not happened -- the Republican president and the Democratic senator together again, plotting ways to reshape the nation's education system. As they sat in the Oval Office that day back in January, President Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy put their schism over the war behind them and focused on the agenda at hand.

"We're going to get moving on this, right Ted?" Bush asked.

Yes, Mr. President, Kennedy said. He could pass it by March.

Ten months later, the optimism has vanished and the campaign to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education law has bogged down. Not only has it not passed, but no formal legislation has even been introduced. In an interview last week, Kennedy said it will not happen this year after all. "It's going to tip over to next year," he said -- right into the teeth of a presidential campaign with candidates on both sides denouncing the program.

This was supposed to be the one area where the embattled White House and the assertive new Democratic Congress would find common ground, thanks to the unlikely partnership between a Texas conservative and a Massachusetts liberal. But like the rest of Bush's legislative agenda, No Child Left Behind has fallen victim to political deadlock, leaving a weakened president struggling to salvage perhaps his most important domestic achievement with the help of one of his toughest critics.

The politics of No Child Left Behind have always been difficult to navigate. In the strange-bedfellows world of education reform, Bush finds himself fending off foes from the left and right. Teachers' unions stand alongside hard-line conservatives against the program, while civil rights groups team up with business organizations in support of it.

The threat to the education accountability program comes as test scores hint at progress, with the gap between white children and minorities narrowing. "There's no reason to turn back the clock," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview. "We're on the move. This is working."

If it is not reauthorized, the law will remain on the books unchanged, although even supporters, including Bush, think it needs to be updated to fix problems and establish "deeper roots," as Spellings put it. Moreover, inaction would represent another punishing defeat for Bush after the death of his plans to overhaul Social Security, immigration law and the tax code. "It matters a lot to him," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who talked about it with Bush aboard Air Force One last week.

Boehner and other original authors of the law have grown pessimistic about their chances. "It's slim to none that it gets reauthorized for a variety of reasons," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. "You have the hard left and the hard right against it. You're running into a presidential election when the Democrats certainly don't want to highlight one of the biggest domestic accomplishments of the president. And clearly the calendar works against it."

Kennedy is not ready to give in. But thinking back on seven years of partnership with Bush on the issue, he grows glum. "It seemed to me the president had a golden opportunity to reform education," he said, "and it's in very, very great danger of being missed."

Goodwill Gestures

Bush made education reform a cornerstone of his Texas governorship and vowed to do the same in the White House. But he made a rookie mistake out of the gate. Convening an education summit in Austin a week after Al Gore conceded in December 2000, Bush neglected to invite Kennedy, a master of the legislative process who had put his mark on nearly every education law in modern times.

The Bush team moved to rectify the oversight. Andrew H. Card Jr., the new chief of staff, called Kennedy on vacation in the Caribbean to smooth things over. And at a luncheon after the January 2001 inauguration, former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) brought Bush over to Kennedy. "He is an ornery SOB," Simpson told Bush, "but you can do business with him."

Bush invited Kennedy and other lawmakers to the Oval Office on his second full workday as president and gave an animated talk about closing the achievement gap between white and minority children. What really sealed the partnership, though, was when he used a term of art -- "disaggregation of data" -- to describe the importance of breaking out minority test scores so school districts could not just highlight overall achievement. The three words signaled to Kennedy his seriousness about the subject.

As the lawmakers got up to leave, Bush noted that reporters would grill them on the way out and asked Kennedy not to drive a wedge between them. Kennedy agreed, telling the reporters that there were areas of agreement and that he was "interested in getting some action." Bush concluded that this was someone he could trust.

And so the courtship began. Bush invited the senator for a White House screening of "Thirteen Days," the Kevin Costner movie about the Cuban missile crisis. He later renamed the Justice Department headquarters after Robert F. Kennedy.

"I don't think the two expected to like each other, but they did," said Sandy Kress, Bush's education lobbyist at the time. "The president was very impassioned about this and very knowledgeable about it, and I think that surprised Senator Kennedy. That was not the image he had of George W. Bush. Kennedy, on the other hand, was open, respectful, more interested in partnership than the president probably expected."

The other key Democrat on Bush's recruitment list was Rep. George Miller (Calif.), or "Big George," as Bush nicknamed him. After years of fighting Republicans trying to abolish the Education Department, Miller was thrilled to find one who wanted to empower it.

By the fall of 2001, Bush had a deal. In exchange for an infusion of money, the more than 1,000-page bill would require schools to test students in math and reading from grades 3 to 8 and once in high school, with the goal of every child meeting basic proficiency by 2014. States would set their own standards and tests. Schools that did not measure up would face sanctions and their students would be allowed to transfer. Named for Bush's campaign slogan, it would be the most important education law in 35 years.

Conservatives wasted no time trying to derail the plan by proposing to give states more flexibility. Bush summoned Rep. Jim DeMint (S.C.), sponsor of the amendment, to the White House and pressed him to pull it. Just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Republicans swallowed misgivings, and the plan passed 381 to 41 in the House and 87 to 10 in the Senate. DeMint voted yes.

"Obviously if a president's sailing along at 80 percent approval rating, members are going to be very reluctant to say no," Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said. "People were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt."

'Lies and Lies and Lies and Lies'

In February 2002, a month after he joined Kennedy on a fly-around tour to mark the signing of No Child Left Behind, Bush released a budget without as much money for the program as Kennedy expected.

Kennedy was shocked when an aide came with the news. With Miller, he marched to the press gallery to vent his outrage. Miller recalled it as a seminal moment. "That just really poisoned the well," he said.

The flush of the grand bipartisan compact quickly faded for other reasons, too. Early implementation proved chaotic. The Education Department was slow to issue regulations explaining how to comply, and aggravation in local communities grew. Lawmakers found their town hall meetings jammed with angry teachers and parents.

While schools struggled to make sense of the law, Washington turned to war. After Bush sent U.S. troops into Iraq, Kennedy denounced the "lies and lies and lies and lies," and threw himself into the drive to oust Bush in the 2004 election, campaigning vigorously for fellow Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. "The only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush," Kennedy thundered at the Democratic convention.

His anger over the war persisted after the election. But both Bush and Kennedy tried to preserve their alliance on education. Kennedy pressed so much on funding that Bush playfully preempted him when they got together. "I see my friend Ted's joined us," Bush would say. "We're going to talk about increased funding today?"

But the president and his aides dismissed Kennedy's arguments, pointing out that they had increased annual spending on programs that make up No Child Left Behind from $17.4 billion in the 2001 fiscal year to a proposed $24.5 billion in 2008, up 41 percent. "That's a big increase," said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel D. Kaplan. Kennedy maintains Bush should have put another $56 billion into the program over six years, based on spending authorization ceilings.

Either way, Bush realized that implementation of the law had not gone smoothly. In 2005, he replaced Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige with Spellings, a close confidant. A tough-talking Texan who boasted of being the first mother of school-age children to serve as education chief, she quickly moved to resolve problems and impressed lawmakers with a pragmatic, blunt style flavored with phrases such as "Hell, yes," and "We damn sure did."

Yet by the time Spellings took the helm, the law had made plenty of enemies with a litany of complaints: It had turned schools into test-taking factories, diverted attention from subjects other than reading and math, promoted dumbed-down standards, crowded some schools at the expense of others and imposed more bureaucracy.

Egged on by the National Education Association, the powerful teachers union, school districts filed lawsuits and states openly resisted. Bush is "trying to prove he's the education president, but the way he's trying to do it is not consistent with what we would think of as an education president," said NEA President Reg Weaver.

The NEA steered $5.4 million into the 2006 elections, hoping the ouster of the Republican Congress might spell the end of No Child Left Behind. "They thought, 'Yay, that's it, we won, we're going to move forward,' " said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), a freshman elected with union help. "They didn't factor in the fact that both Senator Kennedy and Chairman Miller have an ownership stake in this as well, and they don't want to scrap it."

'Could Be a Real War'

Kennedy and Miller arrived at the Oval Office this past Jan. 8 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of No Child Left Behind and map out a strategy to renew it, along with Spellings, Laura Bush, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.). Bush congratulated Kennedy and Miller on their ascension to chair their respective education committees. "It was kind of a kumbaya moment," McKeon recalled.

Kennedy had warned the administration that it was vital to reauthorize No Child Left Behind before the presidential race really got underway. But he and the president had different ideas for how to revise the law. Bush, among other things, wanted to require testing on science and to give money to low-income students in bad schools to go to private schools. Kennedy wanted to expand the criteria for judging schools beyond just test results and do more to help struggling schools avoid being labeled failures.

For all that, it became clear that neither controlled his own party. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) worked the floor, collecting 65 Republican signatures on a bill to let states opt out of the program. "This president is so confident -- he's never wrong," Hoekstra said derisively. As for Spellings, "she probably blended the Kool-Aid and then drank it and tried to give it to as many members as possible."

Among those joining the revolt was House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a Bush ally. "I always had misgivings," he said. "But I did vote for it on the basis that maybe he was right and this was his big domestic initiative and let's give him a chance. But all my concerns . . . have proven to be justified."

DeMint, who backed down in 2001, has since been elected to the Senate and has his own alternative bill. "I'd love to help the president on this," he said. But "with the Democrats in control, he may have to agree to even more federal control, and that's going to cause a real split among the Republicans, and that could be a real war."

The White House responded by deploying its "huge asset," as Kaplan put it -- Laura Bush, a former schoolteacher who hosted three White House coffees to lobby key Republicans. Spellings, meanwhile, ran a virtual war room at an Education Department headquarters so fixated on the issue that the words "No Child Left Behind" are emblazoned everywhere from the faux red schoolhouses in front of the building to the elevator doors.

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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