St. Paul, Minn. — Education is much more of state than a national issue. Consider the numbers. The federal government spends less than 3 percent of its budget on education. In the state of Minnesota, more than half of the budget goes toward education.
But four years ago when Texas governor George W. Bush was campaigning for the White House, he promised major education reform.
A year after he took office President Bush signed into law the "No Child Left Behind" act.
"As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform and on a new path of results," he said.
Bush said "No Child Left Behind" would provide more money for schools and more accountability for taxpayers.
"Our schools will have higher expectations. We believe every child can learn. Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals."
"No Child Left Behind" became law with overwhelming bi-partisan support in Congress, including the vote of Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
Kerry says he still believes in the goals of the education bill. He even takes credit for helping write parts of it. But Kerry is highly critical of the way the Bush administration has implemented the law.
"We've got a problem with the funding of our schools and I'm going to change that," Kerry said during a recent campaign appearance in Minnesota. "Under the No Child Left Behind bill we were supposed to provide resources to be able to meet the new standards. This president has short changed that bill by $27 billion."
President Bush steadfastly holds up "No Child Left Behind" as a success. Bush often cites the accurate statistic that under his administration education funding has nearly doubled, climbing to more than $62 billion in the 2004 budget. And he's proposed $250 million in new spending to help schools with the cost of testing.
"I like to tell people we've... we're getting the job done when it comes to our schools," Bush claims. Kerry disagrees.
"Yes there's additional money in education but that's not the measurement," insists Kerry, "The measurement is have we put the amount in that we need to do the job."
Bush says test scores are rising. He accuses Kerry of "flip- flopping" on No Child Left Behind because Kerry criticizes the reform effort even though he voted for it.
"I don't know that you can characterize it as a complete flip-flop," says Charles Merritt, a policy analyst with the non-partisan Education Commission of the States. Merritt says Kerry is far from alone in initially supporting No Child Left Behind and now wanting changes in the way the law is being put into place.
"There has been a lot of push back from our constituents at the state level -- bipartisan push back as you are probably aware -- there are some issues with implementation in terms of some of the costs," Merritt says.
So what about Kerry's oft-repeated charge that thanks to the Bush administration No Child Left Behind is being underfunded to the tune of nearly $10 billion a year? Merritt says its more complicated than that. That school school systems are not struggling across the board under No Child Left Behind. That, in some places, the testing is nothing new and accordingly is not causing problems.
"I don't know that you can say definitely that it is underfunded," Merritt says, "We are still probably not far enough along in full implementation to know exactly how much additional funding will be needed."
Kerry wants $100 billion dedicated to No Child Left Behind over then next 10 years. And his concerns with the legislation go beyond funding. He says No Child Left Behind tilts too heavily toward standardized testing and doesn't take into account other important measures of school performance.
Bush accuses Kerry of trying to "dilute" the legislation. "The reason you measure is not to punish, the reason you measure is to correct problems early before it's too late and so the No Child Left Behind Act sets high expectations and high standards," Bush said recently in Minnesota, "It believes in local control of schools but it also says lets measure to determine whether curriculum works, to determine whether or not our children are learning how to read and if not, let's correct the problem before it's too late."
Apart from No Child Left Behind, President Bush supports making school vouchers available to help defray the cost of private education. Kerry does not. Both candidates favor phased in increases in federal funding for special education.
The two candidates also have differing proposals for higher education with Kerry calling for much more spending than Bush.
As part of a one-time $25 billion infusion of money, Kerry would provide states with $10 billion to help with the cost their public colleges and universities in exchange for a one-year agreement not to raise tuition beyond the rate of inflation.
Kerry is also proposing a significant increase college tuition tax credits.
Kerry's education, plan K-12 and beyond, would cost a little more than $200 billion over 10 years. He says the money would come from rolling back tax cuts on high-ncome Americans. Kerry also says the federal government could raise upwards of $14 billion over the next decade by cutting subsidies banks get for providing student loans. He says he'd use that money to send 200,000 students a year to college for free provided they agree to any number of two-year volunteer projects.
"There's all kind of work to be done. Help us clean up the river, clean up the park, do things that the community knows and defines are needed," Kerry says, "In return we're going to pay for their full four year in state college public education."
Bush wants to increase Pell grant money.
When the president talks about improving higher education, he often highlights community colleges and calls for more emphasis on worker retraining programs.
"What education does is it makes you a more productive worker. And people...government has got to encourage people to go back to community college by helping them to do so," Bush said recently in Minnesota, "And if we want to keep jobs here we're got to train people for the jobs that actually exist. This is a changing world. The economy is changing."
The Bush campaign argues Kerry's numbers don't add up that he can't pay for what he's proposing without "massive tax hikes."
Stepping back, what's notable beyond the specifics of the debate, is that education has become such a major national issue. Not long ago you would have hard pressed to hear a Republican talk about imposing federal standards on schools -- it used to be a local issue. Now Republicans and Democrats aren't debating whether increased spending is appropriate, the battle is over how much more should be spent.