(CNSNews.com) - President Bush's top legislative priority, the education bill, which he still hopes Congress will pass before its August recess, has a loud and powerful critic in House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas). Despite already having voted for a House version of the legislation, DeLay now says he has serious reservations about what he calls "that awful education bill."
House and Senate bills are in the process of being reconciled, but there are large differences between the two, especially over the cost of the new program that would, among other things, require annual testing of students in reading and math and force local school districts to improve student performance or risk the loss of federal aid.
However, Delay told the July 2001 edition of the "Limbaugh Letter" that his vote in favor of the president's education bill was "pure politics" rather than a vote on principle.
"I came to (Congress to) eliminate the Department of Education, so it was very hard for me to vote for something that expands the Department of Education," Delay said in the Limbaugh Letter. "I can't even remember another time that I've actually voted against my principles."
Delay's disagreement with the White House over education revolves around whether local and state governments should decide education policy rather than the federal government.
"I think that the president is absolutely right in what he thinks should be done to our school systems' accountability. Unfortunately, it shouldn't be the federal government doing it. But, this is one of his big agenda items," Delay said.
Delay's press secretary, Jonathan Grella, said the congressman believes the problems with the legislation are a result of the president's desire to compromise with a closely divided Congress.
"This is not all the president's fault," said Grella. "Perhaps some will criticize the president for the desire to pass this by a lot of votes, and in order to garner that significant majority that he (Bush) sought...he had to give to get.
"Mr. Delay backs choice and opposes expanding the size of the Department of Education," he said. "We're interested in putting kids before bureaucrats and before anything else.
Many conservative activist groups share Delay's concerns about the education bill's reliance on federal instead of state and local control.
"The importance of the federal role will grow with the amount of money that it put into it (federal education funding)," said Nathaniel Koonce, educational policy analyst for Empower America. "It has already grown tremendously. The new programs that have been created, especially in the new Senate bill, are doing nothing to stop the encroachment of the federal government into what should be a state and local matter."
The libertarian CATO Institute also sees the education bill as a threat to parental and local control of education.
"It (the Bush education plan) was a greater centralization of authority than we have ever seen," said Darcy Olsen, director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute. "This whole idea of a national standard, which basically becomes a national test...that's a massive move toward centralization, and that's why the superintendents from all over the country are up in arms."
Cultural conservatives are likewise dismayed by President Bush's education initiative.
"We're concerned that this doesn't go far enough to restore local control and to restore parental options, parental choice for children who are in failing schools," said Laura McGee, legislative assistant for the Family Research Council. "We just don't see where this bill helps families and children very well."
While Delay stops short of singling out the president for blame, other conservatives are not as reluctant.
"There was the massive increase in spending, there was a pretty significant increase over last year's budget, so there was no sort of looking for efficiency-type things that you might expect from Republicans," said Olsen. "When it comes to leading, he (Bush) didn't fight hard to keep in the most important provisions, which were vouchers, so that you would have a choice of an actual decent school."
Bush dropped his proposal for private school vouchers in exchange for funds that would go for private tutoring. "I don't know how much of that (changes in the bill) to attribute to Democrats, and how much of that to attribute to Republicans," she said.
Koonce believes Bush's eagerness to get a bill passed has compromised his conservative principles on education.
"I think that he has been so eager to get a bill passed and has given that signal so clearly, that he has allowed compromises, which in our view at least, were too great," Koonce said. "Unfortunately, in the spirit of compromise, in the spirit of bipartisanship, he lost the real meat of his original proposals, and we would have liked to have seen him (Bush) fight a little harder for those proposals."
According to Department of Education spokeswoman Lindsay Kozberg, the education plan's critics miss the actual progress contained in the Bush plan.
"Some critics have focused upon what's not in the bill, [rather] than what's in it," she said. "That's a mistake because they're missing the sweeping and comprehensive reforms that are underway."
Kozberg points out that the Bush plan includes several measures that would return power to local governments and to parents. The amount that parents can deposit in educational savings accounts would be boosted from $500 per year to $2,000 per year, she said.
"Parents who have children in persistently failing schools can have the benefit of federal resources to obtain supplemental education services, whether that's from a private provider such as a Kaplan or Sylvan, or from an individual teacher tutor, or Internet learning opportunities," Kozberg said. "It's a very wide set of options that have never been available to parents under the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act)."
The autonomy of local school boards would also be enhanced under the Bush plan, according to Kozberg, through the consolidation of several federal educational programs, and the awarding of block grants to states and local school districts.