Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Bush signs school bill in Hamilton

Ceremony shows extent of support for reforms

By Steve Kemme, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Sue Kiesewetter, Enquirer contributor

        HAMILTON — President Bush turned the nation's attention to the battle against illiteracy Tuesday as he signed a $26.5 billion education-reform bill while sitting at a plain wooden teacher's desk at Hamilton High School.

[photo] President Bush shakes hands with Hamilton High honor student Molly Estridge,17, after siging the education reform bill. Also on the dais are (from left) U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Education Secretary Rod Paige and U.S. Rep. John Boehner.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “From this day forward, all children will have a better chance to learn, excel and live out their dream,” Mr. Bush said. “This bill says that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us that every child is learning.”

        Hundreds of Hamiltonians lined streets outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the first president to visit here in half a century. Inside, 2,200 packed the gymnasium, bedecked with patriotic banners and ringing with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

        The visit to the home district of U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, one of the principal authors of the bill, provided a boost to economically struggling Hamilton and to Hamilton City Schools, which has transformed itself the past two years into one of the state's highest-rated urban school districts.

        Four of the 51 students on the dais were invited to stand near Mr. Bush as he signed the bill. Rachelle Beeman, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, was one of the lucky ones.

        “It was the most happy time in my life,” Rachelle said.

        The visit also emphasized Mr. Bush's efforts to focus on his domestic policies after four months dominated by the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

        “If we're going to win the war overseas, we have to win the war against illiteracy at home,” he said, a sign bearing his education slogan “No Child Left Behind” hanging above him.

        The audience, which included 360 students, gave Mr. Bush six standing ovations during his one-hour appearance.

        Mr. Bush, first president to visit Butler County since Harry S. Truman in 1952, was joined on his trip by Education Secretary Rod Paige and by four architects of the education reform bill — Mr. Boehner, of West Chester, and fellow Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Democrats Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California.

        Speaking in a county that has been a Republican stronghold that strongly supported both him and his father, Mr. Bush said bipartisan cooperation was critical for the bill. He praised Mr. Boehner's work as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee for guiding it through the difficult legislative process. He called Mr. Kennedy a “fabulous” senator: “When he's with you, it's a great experience.”

        Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who also helped push the education bill through Congress, joined the group here.

        “It's nice to see an issue like education bringing people together,” Mr. Bayh said afterward, adding that bipartisan cooperation is particularly important during wartime and that education improvements strengthen the country.

        “I think we have to remember what our armed forces are fighting for: a more decent, more prosperous, freer society,” Mr. Bayh said.

        The bill requires annual reading and math tests, shifts more money to public schools with large numbers of poor students, gives local schools more flexibility in spending federal funds, and makes it easier for parents to move their children out of persistently failing schools. The bill does not include Mr. Bush's attempt to provide vouchers that could be used for private school tuition. The measure was abandoned in negotiations with Democrats.

        “Money alone doesn't make a good school, although it helps,” Mr. Bush said. “We have spent billions of dollars on education with lousy results. So now it's time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.”

        Mr. Boehner said the bill will help close the educational gap between affluent and the disadvantaged students.

        Hamilton Schools Superintendent Janet Baker called the president's visit “a real shot in the arm” for the city.

        “I believe education is the hub of a community,” said Mrs. Baker, a lifelong Hamilton resident and 1965 graduate of Garfield High School. “Having the president here is consistent with that. The diversity of our school district mirrors the diversity of the nation. This is a great place for President Bush to sign his bill.”

        Donald Ryan, whose first official day as the new Hamilton mayor was Monday, spoke with Mr. Bush briefly before his speech.

        “My second day in office and I met the president of the United States!” he exclaimed. “He was personable and very down to earth.”

        President Bush arrived on Air Force One at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn shortly after 8:30 a.m.

        One of the greeting party, Gen. Lester Lyles, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, said President Bush noted the frigid weather and praised the base.

        “The minute he got off the plane, he said, "It is cold,'” Gen. Lyles recalled as Air Force One rose into a clear blue sky later that morning. “He was smiling. Great spirit, great personality. You could see he was really pumped up and excited about signing the education bill.” Mr. Bush flew on from Ohio to Portsmouth, N.H., and Boston as a way to thank members of Congress who helped pass the education bill.

        Mr. Bush came to Hamilton by military helicopter, which landed in the high school's football practice field. Several hundred people clustered on the streets surrounding the high school, many with cameras, camcorders and American flags.

        A few protesters showed up, too. A woman's red-and-yellow placard said: “No more tests.”

        More than two dozen marked cruisers blocked off entrances to the high school and surrounding area. Additional police cars — marked and unmarked — were stationed or patrolling nearby.

        Hamilton High School's pep band played Kool & the Gang's “Celebration” and the crowd chanted “U-S-A!” as Mr. Bush arrived.

        After the signing, Mr. Bush walked in front of the stage and shook hands for about five minutes with well-wishers.

        Spencer Stewart, a Hamilton junior, said he shook hands with Mr. Bush and told him he was doing a great job.

        “He said he appreciated it,” Spencer said. “It was awesome. I'm going to take a picture of my hand when I get home.”

        Enquirer reporters Janice Morse and Jennifer Edwards contributed to this report.

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