Bush on defensive over 'myth of Texas miracle'

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The Independent US

With the US presidential candidates battling down to the last vote, Al Gore is once again turning to his rival's record as governor of Texas - and this time he believes he has found the evidence that will, at last, knock the ground from under George W Bush's feet.

With the US presidential candidates battling down to the last vote, Al Gore is once again turning to his rival's record as governor of Texas - and this time he believes he has found the evidence that will, at last, knock the ground from under George W Bush's feet.

Yesterday, the Democratic Party began running advertisements announcing: "The Texas miracle is a myth."

Campaign managers have been pumping out press releases arguing that Mr Bush's claims on education reform are just hollow rhetoric.

Vice President Gore has put the issue at the core of his standard stump speech as he frenetically tours his home turf - states like Tennessee and Arkansas that in a less nail-biting electoral contest he could probably call his own.

The smoking gun is a report issued this week by the Rand Corporation, a think tank considered more conservative than liberal, which questions the validity of Texas's student testing methods. The report directly contradicts the Bush camp by asserting that the gap between white and black students is growing, not shrinking. And it echoes a widespread criticism heard in Texas that schools in the state are now teaching Mr Bush's test rather than the curriculum itself.

'"The study reported that contrary to all we've been told, the achievement gap for Texas students has not narrowed, it has widened," Mr Gore said. "The study called the claim that the achievement gap was closing in Texas - and I quote - 'false'."

Education is at the heart of what Mr Bush calls his "compassionate conservative" agenda and a big element in his appeal to moderate voters, so the report has put his advisers heavily on the defensive.

In a frantic effort at damage control, they have sought to depict the report's authors as politically motivated spoilers out of step with another Rand study issued this summer. Rand researchers, however, say this accusation is "absolutely false" and that the new report was meant in part to correct the Bush camp's misinterpretations of the old one.

The study may already be having an effect on public opinion. A New York Times poll yesterday gave Mr Gore a narrow lead in Florida, where he had been trailing just the day before. The overall lead Mr Bush established in the wake of last week's final presidential debate has been eroded and, according to some surveys, reversed.

Until now, the Gore campaign has been selective in its criticisms of the Texas record for fear of sounding shallowly partisan - after all, Mr Bush was re-elected in 1998 with 69 per cent of the vote. It has concentrated on the environment, poor children's health provision and Mr Bush's failure to back a patients' bill of rights.

But critics in Texas say there is plenty more bad news for the Gore camp to focus on. On education, Mr Bush was behind a move to shift control for kindergarten provision from state to local level. As a result, his critics say, 15 per cent of the state's kindergartens have simply disappeared. Elsewhere, there is a $600m (£430m) shortfall in the state budget despite Mr Bush's repeated campaign assertion that he knows how to balance budgets.

At the Department of Economic Development, the state auditor has called for the removal of two Bush appointees and stripped the department of two of its major functions because of gross mismanagement. The housing agency is plagued by a kickback scandal involving another Bush appointee.

Even the pro-Bush press in Texas has its doubts. In an editorial this week, the Austin American-Statesman had kind words for his education record but slammed him on just about everything else.

Mr Bush says he wants to "do for America what I've done for Texas". It could be a line that returns to haunt him.

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