W A S H I N G T O N, May 3, 2001 -- In further proof that politics makes strange bedfellows, proud conservative President Bush and unabashed liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have become allies in the battle to reform education.
The Senate today took up an education reform bill that, among other things, seeks to improve student performance, give schools more leeway in spending federal funds and provide more money for teacher training. Following weeks of negotiations, Kennedy and Senate Democrats announced Wednesday they had reached compromise with the administration on a "basic framework" for education reform, a centerpiece of the Bush campaign agenda.
"We have developed a simple program to provide resources and reform and accountability in these areas," Kennedy said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "It sounds like a simple idea but it hasn't been done. And President Bush is right there in support of that concept. The Democrats are there and we are working together to make a difference."
Bush and Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, have joined forces on the issue after a proposal on vouchers — which would have let parents use federal aid to send their children to private schools — was dropped from the bill.
Conservatives bristled after House and Senate committees stripped the plan to offer a $1,500 voucher for parents of children in failing public schools to put toward private school tuition.
The administration reacted mildly to defeat of vouchers, which had been a central element of the president's plan.
"We will continue to make the case for private school choice in order to expand options to the maximum extent," an Education Department spokeswoman said.
Bush conceded in advance the voucher provision was doomed to defeat.
"I'm a realist. I understand that. It doesn't change my opinion, but it's not going to change the votes, either," he told a group of regional reporters. "There are people that are afraid of choice."
Some conservatives were extremely displeased.
"If this provision is eliminated, we have lost most of the president's vision for education reform because the only thing this bill will do is empower the bureaucrats in Washington," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.
"This is no longer a George Bush education bill," Hoekstra, chairman of a subcommittee of the House education panel, told the New York Times. "This is a Ted Kennedy education bill."
While vouchers have been stricken, both plans would let students in failing schools use federal funds to receive private tutoring or switch to better-performing public schools.
But conservatives grouse that even that provision has been significantly watered down.
The bills also would require students to be tested annually on reading and math from the third grade until the eighth. And school districts would be granted greater flexibility in their use of federal funds, a provision designed to give local officials the ability to direct resource to their greatest needs: higher teacher salaries, for example, or improved classroom technology.
Despite the agreement, Republicans and Democrats still differ on funding levels. Democrats had been looking to increase Bush's $9 billion in funding for poor school districts to $15 billion.
Overall, the federal government plays a relatively minor role in education, contributing just 7 percent to most schools' budgets.
Kennedy and Bush have been courting each other since Inauguration Day, meeting with Bush three times at the White House — including a movie party to watch "13 Days" — and twice at education-related events outside the White House.
Kennedy has said from the beginning they could cooperate on education.
"It's an opportunity now and we shouldn't miss it," Kennedy said in January. "We'll find ways to work with this new administration," he said. "I think a lot of people are going to be surprised."