ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Two years after President Bush fulfilled a campaign promise to enact sweeping education changes, Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) is trying to use the president's signature domestic issue against him.
"Education reform was supposed to be the single biggest effort of this administration," Kerry said Tuesday as he started a three-day education tour. "And all over our nation I'm meeting teachers who are burdened, teachers reaching into their own pockets, paying money out of their own salaries in order to put materials in front of their kids in school. That's unacceptable when you are giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America."
Four years ago, Bush made inroads with parents, particularly mothers, when he campaigned on a promise to increase federal education spending and use the money to make educators accountable for student failures.
But now Kerry is highlighting the cause of unhappy parents and teachers and looking to reclaim the issue for Democrats. The Massachusetts senator's mention of the No Child Left Behind (search) law brought heckles during his visit to Albuquerque's Longfellow Elementary School.
"Need I say more," Kerry joked in response to boos from parents and teachers. "But as everybody knows, the promise of No Child Left Behind has been broken. The promise is not only the money, the promise was the real reforms and the efforts within the schools to provide smaller class size."
Democrats dominated the education issue for years until Bush came along as a self-styled "compassionate conservative" touting the need for reform. Bush delivered with the 2002 law known as "No Child Left Behind," passed with the help of liberal stalwart Sen. Edward Kennedy (search), D-Mass., — and Kerry's vote, too.
The law requires schools to test many children yearly in reading and math and to put a highly qualified teacher in every core class. Schools must report student performance by race and ethnicity so underperforming pupils don't get lost in school averages, and poor schools that get federal aid but don't make enough progress face mounting consequences.
Kerry lauded the bill when it passed and said he still supports the idea of accountability and measurements, but "we don't need it with the kind of ideological, preconditioned rigidity and disrespect that this administration has brought."
Republicans say the education law will be one of the signature accomplishments for Bush's re-election.
"What President Bush and Congress promised in No Child Left Behind was that federal education spending would increase dramatically and be tied for the first time ever to accountability for results and that's exactly what's happened," said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (search), R-Ohio. "I think it's unfortunate that John Kerry has gone back on that promise and is now working against the bipartisan education reforms he voted for just two years ago."
With the United States facing terrorism and fighting a war in Iraq, national security has dominated the presidential race. Kerry's campaign is trying to make education an issue of American strength — he spoke Tuesday in front of a banner that said "Stronger Schools A Stronger America."
Kerry is spending three days this week promising voters that he would do better by the nation's schools and students. On Tuesday, he vowed that 1 million more students would graduate high school if he is elected. He takes the message to California on Wednesday and Thursday.
Kerry wants to roll back Bush's tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year and use some of the money to create a $200 billion education trust fund over 10 years. Kerry says roughly half the money would be used to fully fund No Child Left Behind.
The plan opens Kerry to criticism that he would raise taxes; he says he thinks most Americans will side with him.
"There is no way we can address the education needs of America, no way at all, unless we are prepared to make a hard choice," Kerry said. "America's choice for health care, job creation and education is to roll back George Bush's unaffordable, unwise, deficit-creating tax cut for the wealthiest people."