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G.O.P. Victories Energize Conservative Think Tanks

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With the Republican takeover of Congress and substantial g.o.p. gains at the state level, the Heritage Foundation is not the only conservative think tank that is flexing its muscles.

Many of the names are familiar from the Reagan and Bush eras. So are many of the items on their agenda. But the ideas' prospects for enactment are much greater in the new political landscape.

"A lot of things are possible that really weren't possible before," said Allyson M. Tucker, the manager of the center for educational law and policy at the Heritage Foundation.

A new report from the Washington-based research organization, drafted at the request of Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who is slated to be the next Speaker of the House, recommends revisiting many federal education programs. (See related story)

(See education legislation, said an official of that Washington-based group, headed by Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett, two Republican former Secretaries of Education. It promotes "new approaches" to such issues as education, crime, and health care.

Both Heritage and Empower America favor consolidating or eliminating many federal education programs and returning more control to the states.

A Climactic Change

The libertarian Cato Institute, also located here, is also planning to release a handbook for the new Congress next month. The think tank advocates smaller government and school choice.

"We will be asking the education committees to take a serious look at downsizing the federal Department of Education," said David Boaz, Cato's executive vice president.

Moving responsibility from the federal level to the states is a common theme.

"There are a few things that we want to keep at the federal level," said the Empower America official, "like civil rights and some issues that deal with disabilities, where we feel there need to be some federal guidelines."

"Other than that," the official said, "we want to send just about everything to the states."

Many think tanks are also eager to weigh in on welfare reform.

"We have a lot of interesting ideas," said Leslie Lenkowsky, the president of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. "I was in Washington the last couple of days. Welfare is head and shoulders the hot-button issue."

The perception is that Washington is now a hospitable place for groups that had been out in the cold since the Democrats recaptured the White House in 1992.

"The Hill is an entirely different matter now," said Lanny Griffith, a founder of Americans for School Choice who served in the Education Department under President George Bush.

"After the 1992 election, we were so convinced that Congress would be among the last institutions to support school choice that we made it part of our agenda to ignore Congress and concentrate on the states," he said "I think that's changed pretty dramatically."

'Promise' in the States

But many groups are more interested in building on g.o.p. inroads at the state level, where they say the real action will occur. Republicans now control both chambers in 19 state legislatures, compared with eight before last month's elections. They also won the majority of governorships.

Empower America and other conservative groups plan to hold an education briefing for newly elected state officials next month. "We want to present a united front in terms of what we're trying to do at the federal, state, and local levels," said the Empower America official.

Earlier this fall, the Hudson Institute announced that it was revving up its Educational Excellence Network, which has operated as a clearinghouse. The e.e.n. has created a policy advisory committee and plans to publish issues briefs for states.

"There are a lot of places around the country where reforms that didn't look like they were politically viable a month ago suddenly are imaginable," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan Administration education official who is the director of the network.

Arizona came close to passing a private-school-choice bill last year. Now, the Republican margin in the state Senate has been enlarged, and Lisa Graham, the legislator who led the effort, has been elected the state commissioner.

Other states where choice advocates say the elections worked in their favor include Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates returning more power to state and local governments, said: "I think you're going to see a broad array of different kinds of programs implemented. It's not all going to be choice. It's not all going to be charter schools. It's not all going to be private contracting."

Meanwhile, one major right-of-center think tank here says it is carrying on business as usual.

"We've been putting forth proposals for years on a variety of topics," said Vincent Sollitto, the director of media relations for the American Enterprise Institute. "It's not like a week ago, suddenly, we kicked into high gear."

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