Friday, January 21, 2000

Taft totes political heft for schools plan

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Gov. Bob Taft pressed the education hot button this week.

        In his State of the State address, he shared his plan to improve Ohio's schools and better educate its students by hiring more teachers, fixing crumbling buildings and establishing the Governor's Commission for Student Success.

        Top Ohio politicians I talked with right after the speech said the governor has a good chance of seeing his agenda completed. After just a year in office, he has the clout to get things done. And, they said, he is proposing an agenda almost no one could oppose.

        “Education right now is like God, motherhood and apple pie,” said Senate President Richard Finan. “Polls nationwide, not just in Ohio, say it's the only thing on everyone's mind.

        “Talk to people about crime, unemployment and brownfield recovery,” added the Evendale Republican. “Their eyes glaze over. Mention education: They're all ears. It's the only issue on their radar screen. That is not lost on politicians.”

        Especially not Gov. Bob Taft.

        The governor may come across as a bland but well-meaning guy who lost his pocket protector. But purring beneath that Chevrolet exterior is the engine of a practiced politician.

        Gov. Taft is a careful reader of polls and people. He knows what the public wants. He can also read the pols in the General Assembly. He knows how the state's representatives and senators like to be treated. And he can put the two together to get things done, things he wants to do. That's old-fashioned, unvarnished clout.

No power trip
        Clout is power. And like any frugal Cincinnatian, Gov. Taft spends his carefully.

        “He does things with a sense of reason,” said Sen. Finan.

        “It's hard to criticize a speech that says, "Hey, I want every Ohioan to have a good education,'” said Stan Aronoff, the powerful Cincinnati-based political consultant who preceded Richard Finan as the president of Ohio's Senate.

        “Most of the funding he's requesting is already in place,” Sen. Finan added. That calls for no new taxes, and a minimum of statehouse arm-twisting by the senate president.

        Any additional money the governor wants can be had — through compromise and teamwork.

        “Conservative Republicans in the General Assembly are likely to object to any expanded spending for the schools,” said State Sen. Mark Mallory, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

        Those objections can be outvoted if the governor thinks bipartisan.

        “Some things he wants in education sound good to moderate Republicans and Democrats,” said Sen. Mallory. “He knows how to work with the opposition. He knows we'll ask for some things. We'll bargain. He's not averse to building coalitions.”

        Could be because this governor believes in the power of education. He doesn't pretend he cares about schools to get votes or because it's trendy.

        “I've watched him grow up,” noted Stan Aronoff. “He's been an educational policy wonk all his life.”

The education agenda
        The most expensive item on Gov. Taft's education agenda calls for building and repairing school buildings. The state has already set aside $1 billion for the job. sk,0

        Stan Aronoff predicted “the proposal will pass. Schools are going to be built in every district in the state. Legislators will be pressured from voters at home to approve it.”

        The governor wants to hire 12,000 teachers to help kids learn to read during the summer. Price tag: $4 million.

        “Conservatives will question the money and the results,” said Sen. Mallory. “It'll be close, but a coalition will make this happen.”

        The Governor's Commission for Student Success will make recommendations for strengthening the partnership of students, parents, educators and lawmakers.

        “Before I say yes or no, the proposal needs to be fleshed out,” said Sen. Finan. The senator's predecessor sees the commission as a reality. “Governors,” said Stan Aronoff, “usually get what they want with commissions.”

        Clout — even bland clout — works.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.