Republicans have torn up Clinton's 10-year plan to hire teachers, but schools could still gain, reports Jon Marcus
A Clinton-era plan to pour 100,000 teachers into American classrooms over seven years has been curtailed after only three, thanks to increasing partisan discord over US education spending.
Republicans killed the programme after Democrats embarrassed President George W Bush by passing more than $100 billion for disadvantaged schools, spread out over the next 10 years. That forced Mr Bush, who made education a top priority of his election campaign last year, to come out against helping poor schools in order to have enough money left for his current top priority: an income tax cut.
When Democrats sought to continue working towards President Bill Clinton's 1998 goal of hiring 100,000 new teachers over seven years, Senate Republicans took revenge for earlier embarrassment by blocking them on a 50-48 party-line vote. So far, 40,000 teachers have been hired under the Clinton programme.
Beside the political posturing, the move reflected mostly philosophical differences between the parties, and schools may actually turn out to be the winners.
While Democrats wanted to earmark $2.4bn to hire teachers, Republicans - who prefer that local school districts decide for themselves how to spend federal education money - are pushing to give districts $3 bn directly to use as they wish.
This "addresses the principle of who best decides how to acomplish the goal that we all agree to, and that is to boost student achievement", said Republican Senator Bill Frist "Is it Washington DC, the federal government, or is it parents, local communities, local schools?" But Democrats said the vote would stop the movement to lower class size just as it was gaining steam. "Bipartisanship crashed in our kids' classrooms today," said Democratic Senator Patty Murray.
She said voters would remember the Republican vote in the next election. "Students simply do better when they receive individual attention in smaller classes," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation's biggest teachers' union.
Rather than remaining a proud cornerstone of the Bush presidency, education has turned into a test of whether his party can effectively back him up, given its razor-thin majority in Congress.
The outcome has been mixed. Republicans have said that they prefer to constrain education funding, but are afraid to vote against school spending, mindful of the next election, while Democrats have been gleefully capitalising on these fears.
Other education issues - including a proposal to spend billions of dollars on urgent school repairs and after-school programmes - were delayed as the disagreement between the parties escalated.
At an average age of 43, US public schools are in poor shape. But Mr Bush declined to continue a programme approved last year to provide grants for the most crucial repairs.