Today’s Papers: Not Looking Gift Whores in the Mouth

Everybody leads with President Bush’s unveiling yesterday of his first policy initiative—an education reform package that would require public schools accepting federal funds to annually test their students and report the results. Bush said his goal was to “confront the scandal of illiteracy in America.”

The Bush plan, which the New York Times points out is not a bill but rather a guide to a bill, carries no cost figure. But, the coverage notes, its emphasis on increasing federal monitoring of school quality (aided schools now only generally test in the third and eighth grades) while still allowing much local latitude regarding how that quality is achieved has broad appeal in Congress and among educators. Indeed, the papers point out that Bush’s ideas overlap considerably with a Democratic proposal just unveiled. The only big difference, they note, is that Bush is still open to the issuance of federally funded vouchers (of up to $1,500) toward private school tuition for students in schools that fail annual testings (after three years). But they also note that yesterday, Bush continued his administration’s practice of not using the word “vouchers”—even when directly addressing the concept. For instance, he is widely quoted saying, “In order for an accountability system to work, there has to be a consequence” without uttering the v-word. But the papers’ overall sense is that while Bush would prefer to have vouchers be this ultimate consequence, he is more interested in having Congress get an educational bill passed before the start of the next school year. (And the Wall Street Journal says flatly that vouchers would mean “certain defeat.”) And for the most part, the coverage depicts the chances of a Bush-like bill passing by then as excellent. Most papers quote Republican senators as saying vouchers aren’t a deal-breaker and quote Democrats as liking much in the Bush package.

There are journalistic indications of trouble ahead, though. The NYT observes that while Bush said the 120 billion federal education dollars are currently “scattered to the winds” through “39 federal agencies,” his plan does not call for a major consolidation. And the Times makes one observation very low that calls into question the basic logic of using more student testing to improve school quality: Even under current law, failing schools can lose financing, but “none ever have.” The WSJ says that congressional Democrats will insist that federal money be directed to school districts with high numbers of poor, minority, and ESL students, which it says is not a clear goal of the Bush plan. Perhaps the most negative take is the Los Angeles Times lead, which high up says that “federal reach in education is limited”——because fewer than 10 cents of every public school dollar come from the feds—and which lower has a Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa complaining that Bush is “com[ing] in here and try[ing] to ram it down our throats.”

Several of the papers observe how far conservative Republicans have come now on education in that 10 years ago they wanted to abolish the Dept. of Education while Bush’s plan will give it more power and probably more money.

The LAT, NYT, and WP front President Bush’s decision to extend for two weeks federal orders requiring power producers to sell surplus electricity and natural gas to nearly bankrupt California utilities and his concomitant warning that after that, the state will have to solve its power crisis on its own. The papers make clear that the Bush view is that the ultimate solution to California’s power problems is for the state to encourage more development of its own energy resources.

The NYT fronts word that yesterday in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, five people thought to be members of the banned Falun Gong movement set fire to themselves. One woman died, and the four others were severely burned. The paper calls the event the most dramatic so far in the 18-month struggle between the Chinese government and what it calls an “evil cult.” The Times points out that while Falun Gong protests at Tiananmen have become common, they have usually been swept away by police response very quickly, but this was not possible yesterday when the protesters were “staggering across the vast expanse of the square, arms raised in the group’s meditative pose and flames streaming from their bodies.” The paper reports that a CNN TV crew that witnessed the burnings was detained briefly, and its videotapes were confiscated. The usually historically minded Times did not mention that it was just such self-immolations that crucially destabilized the South Vietnam government in the early days of U.S. involvement there.

The WP fronts the revelation that during last Saturday’s inauguration, a man with merely a standing-room-only general admission ticket penetrated the VIP section and then the Capitol where he managed to shake President Bush’s hand. The same man managed to do the same thing with President Clinton at Clinton’s second inauguration four years ago. What’s more, reports the Post, the Capitol Police, in order to prevent another such incident, had used a videotape of that earlier episode in their recent training. The man was not carrying a weapon and although escorted out of the Capitol after his discovery, was not arrested. He did not apparently commit a crime other than what the Secret Service called an “unscheduled handshake.” The paper doesn’t print the man’s name.

USA Today fronts a long interesting treatment of the paltry pensions of old-time pro football players, such as Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Chuck Bednarik, and their pre-megamillion ilk. The story points out that the NFL player pension funds have zoomed in value in recent years (to over $600 million), and the cause of the older players is now being supported by a team owner, the Ravens’ Art Modell, who saw many of them play. And it supplies the obligatory generation-baiting quote. Bednarik, the last-two way player in the pros, tells the reporter this about Deion Sanders: “Write it down: That stiff couldn’t cover my wife, Emma.”

Both the NYT’s Maureen Dowd and the WP’s editorial page let off some steam about the $190,000 in gifts—mostly home furnishings—that Bill and Hillary Clinton accepted last year, according to the financial disclosure statement they issued just before he left office last week. Both pieces note that under the Senate rules, Hillary couldn’t have accepted these if she’d already been a senator. And both note that one of the contributors (of $7,375 worth of coffee tables and chairs) was Denise Rich, the ex-wife of Marc Rich, the recipient from Clinton of an increasingly stinky pardon. The news sections of the papers have left the topic of these gifts alone. The NYT, for instance, has, through today, run only two short wire stories about them in its nonopinion pages. Why so little interest?