WASHINGTON – In an ironic turn of events, House Republicans pressed President Bush to support key changes in his education legislation Monday as Democrats campaigned to leave its main provisions intact.
With voting on the bill scheduled to begin Tuesday, Speaker Dennis Hastert and other top Republicans appealed to Bush to support a change that would greatly increase flexibility for a limited number of school districts in their use of federal aid.
Several Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush stressed at the meeting that he wanted a bipartisan bill and offered no commitment to seek major changes before the legislation passes the House. The sources said the president probably would invite a group of conservative rank-and-file lawmakers to a White House meeting Tuesday to ease their concerns and raised the possibility that a showdown could be avoided on the House floor.
Democrats attacked the amendment sharply.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said local school districts could lose as much as $335 million in federal support if Congress were to approve the amendment.
"For years now, House Republicans have claimed that they want to make sure federal education dollars go directly to the classroom and not to federal bureaucrats," said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee. "Now, some Republicans want to take hundreds of millions of dollars away from local school districts and give it to state bureaucrats."
Administration officials declared support for the provision giving some states greater leeway in the use of federal funds. "Would we prefer to have more flexibility? Of course," said Education Secretary Rod Paige, although he did not say how aggressively the White House would try to round up support for the amendment.
On other issues, conservative Republicans are seeking passage of a plan to allow students in failing schools to use federal money to pay tuitions to private schools. Others hope to strip out the bill's central provision, a requirement for state-run testing in math and reading in grades 3-8.
Sandy Kress, the president's top education adviser, left no doubt about administration opposition to the testing amendment, saying it "cuts out the heart and soul of this proposal."
While some Democrats also hope to strip out the testing requirement, the drive to pass a funding flexibility amendment, being called "Straight A's," is advanced by conservatives who are unhappy with some of the changes the White House has made to gain Democratic support for the overall bill.
The amendment would give seven states and a limited number of school districts the ability to apply for inclusion in an experimental program designed to see whether the flexibility would lead to improved student performance as measured in the annual tests.
The unlikely turn of events -- conservatives demanding changes from a Republican president while Democrats generally wanting to stand pat -- underscore the complicated political maneuvering on an issue that consistently ranks high in importance with the voters. As recently as five years ago, many Republicans favored abolishing the Department of Education, and public opinion polls routinely showed Democrats with a lead of 20 or 25 points over the GOP in their handling of the issue.
But Bush made education a cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency, Republicans have gradually given up discussion of eliminating the federal department, and polls show the voters rate the two parties even or slightly favor the Republicans.
The issue has created friction between the White House and House Republicans. Many of them want to give the bill a more conservative cast, and some say Democrats could not afford to oppose the bill even if it included the Straight A's provision.
Further irritating Republicans is an additional irony: A nearly identical flexibility amendment is included in a Senate compromise education bill, with the support of liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Asked about the legislation in a weekend interview on Fox TV, Hastert said, "Well, you know, I have to run the House of Representatives, and the president can certainly sign it when it's done. The president and I have had a great working relationship over these last couple of months, but I have to make those decisions."