Matching rhetoric to political reality…

The lead story in the Kansas City Star today outlines some of the troubles local school districts face in implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act:

“Across the country, state education leaders and school superintendents are just beginning to figure out the massive changes and complexities in the No Child Left Behind Act that takes effect this fall. Their immediate challenge: Identify schools in need of improvement and notify parents there that their children can transfer to a better-performing school this fall or possibly receive free tutoring. Their long-term challenge: Eliminate failing schools and bring every child up to academic proficiency within 12 years. The law’s goal is laudable, educators agree, but perhaps too lofty.”

There’s no perhaps about it. The goal is simply impossible to achieve because the president’s rhetoric does not match the complex political, economic, and social realities of the situation. Bush’s “no child left behind” line is stirring rhetoric, but it is unachievable policy. When such a split occurs, the result is often frustration, confusion, and failure.

Allowing a gap between rhetoric and policy is a major political pitfall to which voters and the press should pay more critical attention. Recall that Bush’s father committed one of the worst such offenses in recent memory when he delivered Peggy Noonan’s line: “Read my lips; no new taxes.” The rhetorical power of the line did not match the political reality. Many political scientists and rhetoricians believe that line contributed to his downfall in 1992. Too often, the press treats rhetoric as mere flourish in speaking, forgetting that presidential speech creates serious consequences for policy.