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Education Tour Visits States Pivotal to Bush

Your tax dollars at work. Note the mention of visits "with newspaper editorial boards." Resisters can't even get a letter to the editor published.

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's top education officials have visited Florida at least 13 times in the past four months to tout education reforms at the heart of the president's domestic agenda.

They visited New Mexico nine times on a similar mission; Pennsylvania, eight times.

Unlike 24 other states, those three have not formally complained to the federal government about the burdens of complying with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Florida, New Mexico and Pennsylvania also share this distinction: They are among the 18 states considered pivotal in this year's presidential election.

In fact, as they promote one of the most dramatic education reforms in a generation, Education Secretary Rod Paige and his top deputies have spent most of their travel time this year in states with no formal complaints about the law. They frequently have flown into the so-called battleground states, where the president's re-election campaign is working hardest to win the November vote, according to Education Department records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle.

It's no secret that presidents often spend official government time in must-win states before an election. Bush is no exception. But the travels of education officials may indicate that the pattern extends to the bureaucratic level as well.

"That's the advantage of incumbency," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "You can send some people in and have them give examples of their government working for them, and it can be in those areas where you need (campaign) help."

Of the 134 trips by senior-level officials from Jan. 1 to May 7, at least 84 were to the 26 states that essentially have accepted the education plans. Also, 66 of the visits were made to the 18 political "toss-up" states.

Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said "some consideration" is given to politics when deciding were agency officials travel. But the itineraries are "based primarily upon the best way to tell this story as it unfolds," he said.

"My whole job is to find out what's working and hopefully find some places where it's not working," Hickok said. He made at least 20 trips this year, more than any other Education Department official except Paige.

The records, weekly schedules and travel receipts obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the agency's top 28 officials spent at least $37,476 from Jan. 1 to mid-March to discuss the education reforms passed by Congress in 2002. No records were available for the rest of this year.

The officials' events included school visits, meetings with newspaper editorial boards and the annual convention of the National School Boards Association in Orlando, Fla.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which grew out of Bush's 2000 campaign for the White House, requires school systems to show improvements in student academic performance in exchange for continued federal funding. Students at schools that continue to rank low may be eligible for government vouchers to attend other schools.

Opposition to the reforms came from the right and left. Some Republicans characterized the new law as intrusion into an issue traditionally handled by the states. Liberal educators objected to the use of some standardized tests and what they see as unrealistic targets. Some on both sides characterized the law as an underfunded federal mandate and have threatened to ignore it.

Hickok said the relatively high number of visits to Florida, which provided the minuscule voting edge that tilted the 2000 election to Bush, was because of the difference between the federal law and Florida's accountability plan pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

Jeb Bush announced modest gains in overall performance of schools in Florida, while his brother's plan showed that 87 percent of the schools did not meet the goals of the federal law in 2003.

"How they melded (the plan) together with NCLB was very controversial," Hickok said. "One of the reasons I got down there a lot is to move public opinion in favor of No Child Left Behind in that very kind of controversial environment down there."

Some state legislatures have adopted resolutions threatening to block their funds from covering costs that were required by the federal government. These could include testing and tutoring for students who perform poorly.

Six states -- Arizona, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- have threatened to opt out, which would mean giving up federal funding that covers about 11 percent of those states' school budgets. So far, none has followed through on the threats.

Paige has said much of the opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act has sprung from a lack of understanding of the plan and miscommunication among school administrators. He said visits to various states have helped dispel incorrect assumptions and find ways to make changes without undermining the integrity of the law.

"We listened to educators from across the country, and we learned," Paige said during a news conference announcing a relaxation of rules about teacher certification in rural areas. Meetings with state officials and various education groups prompted other changes in the law, geared toward helping schools reach their goals for student achievement.

Margaret Dayton, a Republican who heads the state House Education Committee in Utah and is leading the effort to opt out of the reforms, said the problems cannot be resolved by officials' visits alone.

"(Paige says) we don't understand No Child Left Behind. It's not that I don't understand the president's plan, it's just that Washington has no place telling what to do in this case," Dayton said. "They can keep talking to us, but the problems are fundamental."

Ray Timothy, who oversees educational testing for Utah schools, said the visits helped calm some lawmakers' anger about federal rules that lacked proper funding. If nothing else, the visits are "really putting a human face on Washington," he said.

— Joe Black
Houston Chronicle


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