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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2002 / 18 Shevat, 5762

Matt Towery

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A little bipartisan hope -- AFTER every presidential State of the Union address, the Democrats and Republicans immediately go to work spinning their versions of what is truly in the best interest of America. So, rather than dwell on the obvious points of contention, it seems timely and apt to instead give Americans a little hope that bipartisan politics can and do work.

Consider the inside story of how a savvy new president, a longstanding liberal Democratic icon, several bright members of the House of Representatives, and a dog -- yes, a dog -- all came together to create some of the most meaningful education reform America has ever witnessed. It is a story that has been largely lost in the midst of the attack on America and the Enron crisis. But it is a tale that deserves to be told.

Just prior to Christmas 2000, and barely a few weeks after he had secured the contested presidency, George W. Bush quietly asked a group of reasonable Republicans and open-minded Democrats to meet with him at the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas. It was there that Bush asked some 16 members of the House and Senate to consider making serious reforms in the way the federal government funds and guides the education of America's young people. The meeting was done quietly, with no fanfare, and with Bush openly soliciting the suggestions of members from both sides of the aisle. The initial result was a piece of legislation designed with the goal of enabling every child to read or write competitively.

The age-old issues of contention proved to be the Republican philosophy of accountability and parental control in determining where and how children should be educated, versus the Democrats' belief that the system needs more money and that reform should not merely provide well-to-do families with the ability to divert tax dollars to pay for private schooling.

That's where Bush's strategy of creating early consensus about the end goal allowed for a successful, indeed almost unprecedented, result.

In the House, Democrats relied on capable members who understood education, like Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who held to his party's positions, while at the same time demonstrating flexibility on issues. The same was true of Georgia Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson, who had previously chaired his state's school board. It was the give-and-take experts such as Isakson who were critical in helping to draft the essential language of the House bill -- a rarity in the modern-day Congress.

The bill finally passed the House with a series of novel concepts for federal reform, including testing each year for grades three through eight, assessment of every public school based on its own progress, and a series of remedial steps for schools that fail to progress. A school that fails to solve its problems after two previous attempts -- including increased funding for teachers to help distressed schools, and the right of the local school board to restructure the school -- would have to allow families to use the school's federal funds to transfer the child to another school.

While Republicans thought they were sailing along, a sudden sea change took place. The Senate Education Committee chairman, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, switched from the Republican Party to become an Independent. Suddenly, the Senate's most prominent liberal, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was in control.

What happened after that was nothing short of a miracle. Kennedy, the perfect whipping boy for conservatives, is nonetheless revered even by hard-liner Republicans as the consummate legislator. Indeed, a mark of his longstanding clout is the fact that his beloved dog "Splash" follows him to committee meetings and dutifully sits at his feet.

While it is rarely written, the fact is that most conference committees meet infrequently. But Kennedy's more typical Democratic version of the bill and the Republican approach led to six conferences, all of which relied heavily on the skills of not only Kennedy, but also of newer members of Congress such as Isakson and Roemer.

During the negotiations, the Bush administration adeptly conceded more money for the bill, as Kennedy requested. But Kennedy, in exchange, agreed to and indeed became a proponent of the flexibility provided for under the Bush version. And at the final conference committee, even Splash got into the act. While Kennedy was summoned from the dais in the committee meeting room, Splash jumped into his chair and seemed to take his natural position as a substitute senator. House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, duly noted Splash's presence.

In the end, a compromise bill passed that finally moves America closer to accountability and parental control in public education, although the bill's significance was lost in the sad and urgent circumstances following September 11.

But this inside story should serve as a reminder to the Bush administration of its ability to accomplish significant domestic change by working, when possible, with skilled and knowledgeable adversaries such as Kennedy. It should also serve as a reminder to Democrats that George W. Bush knows how to get things done.

Above all, it should remind everyone in Washington that a politician's best friend truly is, as President Truman once said, his dog.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate