West Wing Story: His Mind On Education

If there is one issue George W. Bush is truly passionate about it's education. He seemed relieved to take a break from the Middle East this week to talk about a topic he knows very well and believes has crystal clear solutions.

Between meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday and Jordanian King Abdullah II today, he has been flying around the Midwest to talk about "accountability" in schools and remind voters in key states like Michigan and Wisconsin of the education-reform bill he signed.

During his first stop at Vandenberg Elementary School in Southfield, Mich., on Monday he seemed annoyed when reporters asked him about Yasir Arafat. "If I have been asked once, I've been asked 20 times about him. He has disappointed me," he answered tersely. But when the talk turned to education, he was voluble. "Public education is on the minds of our citizens every day, because our citizens see public schools in their neighborhoods and our citizens know how important public education is for the future," he explained.

The president also knows how important talking about education is for his political future. Despite the fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East, education remains a key re-election issue-especially among swing voters like suburban women. It was also Bush's signature issue in Texas. And, next to the tax cut, the education bill was the most important piece of legislation he wanted passed in Washington. Bush has long wanted to wrest education away from the Democrats and make it one of the GOP's strongest selling points. The Republicans have come a long way from the days when Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish the Department of Education.

But lately, they've been playing right into the Democrats hands. The White House was considering the idea of increasing the cost of borrowing to offset a shortfall in the college loan program. That raised such hackles that they dropped it this week, but not before Bush's opponents had a heyday. Now the Democrats-including Sen. Edward Kennedy, who worked with the president on the education bill-are claiming that Bush is not putting his money where is mouth is on education. While he was touring Clarke Street Elementary in Milwaukee today, that state's Democratic congressman, David Obey, released a report tallying a shortfall. "His rhetoric is not matched by resources," Obey said. "While he's going around the country talking about the recently passed education-reform bill, his education budget for next year falls more than $7 billion below what that new bill said we ought to be doing."

For their part, the GOP has launched its own public-relations campaign. Hill Republicans are getting the word out back home that Bush is pro-education. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has recently embarked on a 25-city "No Child Left Behind" tour to advertise and explain the education bill. Under the legislation, states have to comply with new testing requirements. Paige, who was superintendent of schools in Houston, has kept a low profile in Washington but has been working quietly around the country to implement reform. Bush likes it that way, saying he "wanted somebody that actually knew how to get things done."

It is First Lady Laura Bush who has really become the administration's public face on education. She too has been touring the country talking up her husband's programs. She was in California a few weeks ago promoting public service, even rattling off the toll-free number for the president's Freedom Corps. She was in Little Rock last week hosting a mini summit promoting early-childhood literacy. She'll take that message abroad next week when she makes her first solo international trip during which she'll speak at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. "She's a great leader and a great advocate for literacy," Bush said about his wife, who used to be a public school teacher herself, he reminded the teachers at Vandenberg. She'll continue to talk about his favorite topic even as he has to talk about some of his least.