Homeboy in the 'hood

In the Democratic bastion of Harlem, George W. Bush further outlines his education plan while taking a swipe at the GOP.

Published October 5, 1999 9:56AM (EDT)

Texas Gov. George
W. Bush
flew into the liberal belly of the Democratic beast monday night when
his 18-seat charter plane touched down at La Guardia Airport in Queens. Bush is here as part of a three-day campaign swing through the state, which
hasn't been carried by a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Bush's trip to New York has proven he is not shy about going into Democratic
strongholds and stumping for votes. But there is more to this campaign swing than political
machismo. During his stump speeches, Bush used his visits to Buffalo,
Rochester, Syracuse -- and particularly New York City -- to bash the GOP's
indifference to America's social ills, and to explain how his much-ballyhooed
"compassionate conservatism" would benefit African-American children, a group
rarely courted or even mentioned by GOP presidential candidates.

His trip has also underscored the fact that George W. is a very different kind of
Republican than his father, the former president. Eleven years ago Bush the
Elder's presidential campaign addressed black America only by encouraging white
America to fear it, through the demonization of paroled rapist Willie Horton.

Bush's trip to New York, and recent visits with Hollywood execs and Latino groups in California, show that he's willing to wade into liberal territory. Whether acting on the warm and fuzzy principle or making a cold political calculation about how to appeal to white moderates -- or a combination of the two -- Bush is proving himself a very different kind of Republican than any GOP presidential front-runner in American history. It's almost impossible to imagine Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan setting foot in Harlem for one second, much less going there to talk about the importance of educating black children.

Bush began his New York City leg Tuesday morning by visiting the Sisulu
Children's Academy on West 115th Street in Harlem -- named after Walter Sisulu, a
close friend and fellow prisoner of Nelson Mandela.

The state's first charter school, Sisulu Children's Academy opened just a month
ago, educating 247 students, kindergarten through second grade, with additional
grades to be added as the kids advance.

Public charter schools like Sisulu are funded with tax dollars that would have
otherwise been allocated to already existing public schools. According to their
supporters, charter schools are able to thrive because they don't experience the
budgetary and union restrictions that hinder other schools -- not to mention
because of the active community involvement often necessary for their formation.

Flanked by Gov. George Pataki and the Rev. Floyd Flake of the Allen A.M.E. Church
-- and joined by Bill Bennett, Reagan's secretary of education and Bush Sr.'s
drug czar -- Bush listened to testimonials about the school from the school's
principal and two of its parents. The most riveting speakers, of course, were
four of the 22 children in attendance, clad in blue and white uniforms,
sitting politely, who read essays about why they preferred the Sisulu Academy to
their previous schools.

"The school is very clean and ... has lots of books so that the children can read,
which I already like doing," said Kezia Thompson, a second-grader. "The people of
Sisulu Children's Academy are both friendly and patient. I think they love having
the children around."

Pataki then introduced Flake, a former Democratic congressman who crossed party
lines to endorse the governor's reelection campaign last year. "In the fight
last year, when we were working very hard to get the legislation approved that
would allow us to create these charter schools," Flake lobbied tirelessly, Pataki

After brief remarks, Flake -- who was born in Texas -- then introduced Bush as
"my homeboy."

While Flake hasn't endorsed any presidential candidate, he praised Bush for starting charter schools in Texas, and for "reaching out long before he became governor, trying to touch the lives of people throughout that state." Bush continually reaches "into communities to demonstrate that no party has total access to and control of any group in this country," Flake said.

"My vision for America says that the American dream must touch every willing heart," Bush said in his typical aw-shucks style. "We must demand excellence when it comes to education, 'cause there are no second-rate children, and there are no second-rate dreams in America."

Heralding the success of the Sisulu Academy, Bush announced a plan for $3 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of up to 2,000 charter schools during the first two years of his administration.

Bush saved the fireworks for after the photo op. During a lunchtime speech to members of the Manhattan Institute, the governor elaborated on his comments in an extensive education address that not only outlined a few of his education priorities, but chastised his own party for not having shared them.

"Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," Bush said. "Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else -- speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO and GNP.

"Of course we want growth and vigor in our economy," Bush went on, "but there are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence. And the strongest argument for conservative ideals ... is that they lead to greater justice, less suffering and more opportunity. Too often, my party has confused the need of limited government with a disdain for government itself," Bush said, arguing that "our goal" should be "a limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well."

Presumably one of those "few things" would be education, which Bush says he wants to change from "a system of excessive regulation and no standards" into one with "minimal regulation and high standards." Bush also said he would pare down the 60 different categories of federal education grants to just five, while making states introduce an annual test to ensure "accountability."

Gregory King, press secretary for the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Vice President Al Gore Tuesday, was unmoved by the Texas governor's remarks. "Bush's speech is filled with rhetoric of compassion but it promotes the failed ideas of the GOP Congress, such as promoting vouchers and privatization of public schools ... he doesn't realize what working families are dealing with. Who's he really trying to help?

"This is the same old song and dance wrapped in the rhetoric of compassion and concern."

Bush also restated his call Tuesday for a reform of federal education funding, which would allow parents of students in failing schools showing no improvement over three years to receive $1,500 in federal money to put toward "tutoring or tuition" for private schools. This is probably the most controversial of Bush's education proposals, since it's a clear first step toward vouchers -- public money for private, possibly even parochial, schools.

Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane Tuesday blasted Bush's education policy as the "latest rendition of the Texas two-step. He can't profess to be for public schools while at the same time supporting a voucher program that would drain funds from some of our poorest school districts," Lehane said. "You can't claim to be for public schools when at the same time you want to put more guns into our community while choosing to shield the NRA and not shielding our children."

Education is the issue Bush claims to care most passionately about, and it is certainly one of the areas in which he's been most active as governor. Bush and the Texas Legislature have enacted a number of education reform measures since he first took office in 1995, including decentralizing control, developing state diagnostics that assess student and school performance and allocating $82 million for a four-year early-grade reading program.

The Bush campaign claims that Texas students' state test scores "have improved significantly for four consecutive years" and that "minority students in particular showed impressive gains -- some groups improving their scores by as much as 60 percent."

The AFT's King, however, says that the improved test scores are "thanks to the reforms established by Bush's two Democratic predecessors. Bush's priority in Texas hasn't been education, it's giving tax cuts."

Bush campaign staffers felt that the New York trip proved a success in helping Bush profile as sympathetic to the black and brown; but the Bush 2000 team also focused quite a bit on the green. Tuesday evening, Bush held a fund-raiser at the Sheraton New York on Seventh Avenue, one of several New York events expected to gain his campaign around $2.7 million.

When asked how on earth he could account for his unprecedented money-raising successes, Bush money man Don Evans explained, "We got the right candidate at the right time. And we've got a winner."

"Come on, Don," I said. "I mean, $56 million? More than a year away?!"

"Americans are starved for leadership," Evans said. "And Americans are saying, 'My country needs me, and I know it, and I'm gonna get involved like I've never been involved.' It's not any more complicated than that."

"Dooonnnnn," I said.

"I'm tellin' you, man," Evans said. "The guy has got friends all across America. And people have joined the campaign with a passion unlike any effort I've ever been around. We haven't been to a city or state where he doesn't have a good friend. He cares about people and they know it and they feel it."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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Education George W. Bush Republican Party