By George! Bush Gets Smart on Education

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If George W. Bush isn’t careful, he’s going to make the Republican party popular again. The front-running Texas governor on Tuesday rolled out the second of three major education proposals for a conservative Manhattan crowd –- and pointedly accused them of straying from the true path. "Too often on social issues my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah.... Too often my party has focused on the national economy to the exclusion of all else.... Too often my party has confused the need for limited government with the disdain for government itself," he said. It was the second swipe at his party fellows in as many weeks –- and it’s also excellent politics at a time when every Republican left of Jesse Helms finds him- or herself a little uneasy with the label. It even has a little to do with education.

True, Bush did apply the classic GOP formula to education reform: States and localities, not the federal government, should decide how and where to spend Washington’s education dollars. But here’s the rub that may lead the Republicans back to the center of this issue –- and rub some of them the wrong way: The states don’t get to run off without a chaperone. The proposal is filled with ways to let states use federal education dollars more freely, including passing them along to parents in the form of vouchers for private or charter schools. But in exchange, Bush demanded mandatory state testing from grades three to eight and participation in standardized national math and science tests — a big footprint of federal interference that orthodox Republicans abhor. Bush, however, figures that a bit of Big Brother can be useful, and he figures parents, who tend to put their kids’ futures ahead of slash-and-burn ideology, feel the same way. To win, Bush’d have to run to the center anyway — he’s just starting early. If his colleagues are smart, they'll do what the Democrats did in '96: Keep quiet and enjoy the ride.