Inside the Capitol

Saturday, February 04, 2006

2-10 Rio Rancho High Schooler Upstages President

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- President George Bush's appearance in Rio Rancho last Friday wasn't billed as a major policy address, as his appearances the previous two days in Tennessee and Minnesota had been.
So the national cable news networks didn't cover it. But they should have, because there was much to be proud about, for the president and for New Mexicans.
President Bush was comfortable and sounded as though he knew his subject. He talked about how improved math and science education is vital to keep up technologically with emerging nations such as China and India.
This time, the president didn't make a speech, he moderated a roundtable discussion of corporation executives, educators, a start-up business executive and a high school student.
It likely isn't necessary to tell you who blew them all away. A Rio Rancho senior, Nicole Lopez, told of how two teachers rescued her from gang activity during her freshman year and got her interested in math and science.
It opened up a whole new world of possibilities to her in a field she never would have considered. She will enroll next year as a civil engineering student at the University of New Mexico.
Afterward, Nicole's mother confirmed the story about the gang activity. This girl could go on Oprah and not embarrass the popular TV show hostess.
President Bush started on time and ended exactly an hour later. He performed well as a moderator, keeping speakers on message and stopping them to explain acronyms and scientific terms. He put speakers at ease with his self-deprecating humor.
His opening remarks were an extemporaneous summary of his American Competitiveness Initiative. His responses to each speaker's remarks were on point and not patronizing. And he stayed afterward for further discussion.
It's too bad Americans couldn't have seen their president at his best -- at ease, competent and sincere. That familiar smirk never crept onto his face.
Of course, he still had his detractors. His audience was handpicked. His words conflicted with his administration's actions to cut funding for scientific programs, cut student loan programs and give credence to intelligent design arguments.
It almost was as big a departure for him as his pronouncement that Americans have become addicted to oil and must be willing to look for energy alternatives.
U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman both were present for the event. President Bush gave them credit in his opening remarks for having persuaded him to propose the initiative.
Last year, Bingaman led a bipartisan group of Senators in requesting a study of education in the developing countries that are now surpassing us in technology.
The results were sobering. China and India each produce at least five times as many engineers each year than U.S. universities. And their students consistently outperform their U.S. counterparts in math and science.
Armed with those results, Bingaman had a package of three bills drafted for introduction by Domenici and himself. Over 60 bipartisan Senate sponsors now have signed on.
The news that the president wants to make the initiative part of his budget proposal greatly increases the chances of success. The only problem is that the president only wants to spend half the money that Domenici and Bingaman are proposing.
With a budget already in deficit, the outlook is for an underfunded major initiative, something we have seen much of, from the Iraq War to No Child Left Behind.
But Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin chief executive officer, who headed the panel making the report, says America cannot afford to ignore this challenge to U.S. technological supremacy.
Domenici says Bush is heavily constrained by his budgeters, but the former budget committee chairman, who still sits on the panel, says he is ready to try every budget maneuver he knows to free up the money needed to stay competitive with our technological rivals.
FRI, 2-10-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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