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Education law may become a campaign liability for Bush

FAIRLEA, W.Va. -- President Bush's No Child Left Behind education program, acclaimed as a policy and political breakthrough by the Republicans in January 2002, is threatening to backfire on Bush and his party in the 2004 elections.

The plan is aimed at improving the performance of students, teachers, and schools with yearly tests and serious penalties for failure. Although many Republicans and Democrats are confident the system will work in the long run, Bush is being criticized in swing states such as West Virginia for not adequately funding programs to help administrators and teachers meet the new and, critics say, unreasonable standards.

Bush hoped to enhance his image as a compassionate conservative by making the education program one of the first and highest priorities of his administration. But he could find the law complicating his reelection effort, political strategists from both parties say, as some states report that as many as half or more schools are failing to make the new grade and lack the money to turn things around promptly.

"It's way too soon to judge, but unfortunately in politics, people do judge, and that's why we have to keep pushing the message that we think" the law will greatly improve education, "but not overnight," said Republican Conference chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the top communications strategist for House Republicans.

David Winston, a pollster for congressional Republicans, said Bush and the GOP trail Democrats 50 percent to 36 percent on the education issue, a 14-point drop since the measure was signed in January 2002. Democratic presidential candidates are criticizing the law and getting supportive responses.

On Capitol Hill, the fight over funding for No Child Left Behind is becoming a significant issue of the upcoming congressional elections, as Democrats fault Bush and congressional Republicans for shortchanging the law by billions of dollars.

The issue has particular resonance in such key states in the presidential election as Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, and West Virginia, where nearly half or more schools are not meeting the new benchmarks and where a few thousand votes could decide which presidential candidate wins each state in 2004. Swing voters, particularly married mothers, frequently cite education as among their chief concerns.

Since Democrats have championed Head Start as well as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s, voters have trusted them to do a better job of promoting education, mostly by pushing for a bigger federal role in education and greater funding for it. Democratic dominance on the issue came in the mid-1990s when Republicans, who considered education best handled at the local level, tried to abolish the Education Department, a huge political loser for the party.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole, 78 percent to 16 percent, among voters who considered education the most important issue of the day, exit polls indicated.

As governor of Texas, candidate, and then president, Bush has sought to change the party's image and fortunes on education policies by pushing for changes, tough standards, school choice, and stiff penalties for failing schools and teachers. In 2000, he improved GOP standing with voters on education by touting this agenda, losing by eight points to Democrat Al Gore among those who cared most about education. By the time he signed No Child Left Behind last year, Bush had done the once unthinkable: erased the Democrats' historical advantage on education, said Winston and many others who conduct polling on the topic.

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