Dole Campaign Weighs Options On Education
Six months before the 1996 presidential election, President Clinton has made it clear he will draw on his education record to appeal to voters. But taking stock of his chief rival's election-year education agenda is a much more difficult undertaking.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, has not made education a legislative priority. And while recently he has followed the lead of more conservative colleagues on education, Mr. Dole has yet to really focus on the issue.
"Any candidate has to convince the American people that they are truly concerned about education, that they understand the problems in education, and [explain] what they would do about it as president," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a research and advocacy group here that promotes market-based reforms. "I don't think Dole's done that yet."
Other observers echo her comments. But some predict that the Kansas senator will not simply concede the issue to Mr. Clinton.
"The conservatives clearly lost the message war on education" in 1995, said Jim Hirni, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
"Once he gets on top of the message war, then he can come out with some proposals," said Mr. Hirni, who has discussed education with the Dole campaign.
Mr. Dole's campaign press office did not return repeated phone calls. One aide, speaking privately, said only that the campaign considers education an important election issue.
"Inevitably," the aide said, "education will be a major part of this campaign."
As a youngster in Russell, Kan., Mr. Dole attended the local public schools before enrolling at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
After spending two years there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was severely injured in World War II and spent four years in hospitals. The injury left him without the use of his right hand.
He used the GI Bill to continue his college education. Mr. Dole completed his undergraduate work and received his law degree in 1955 from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.
"Dole has not been completely divorced from the public sector," said Burdette Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, noting his experience with federal benefits programs and public schools.
In addition, while many GOP candidates succeeded in 1994--the year of the Republican takeover of Congress--by trumpeting their status as political outsiders, Mr. Dole has spent his entire career as a public official.
Having served in the Kansas legislature and as a county attorney, Mr. Dole was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. He parlayed his popularity into a seat in the Senate in 1968, where he has served ever since.
Before ascending to the GOP leadership, Mr. Dole focused on agricultural issues and, as a member of the Finance Committee, played a key role in brokering major Social Security bills. He also sat on the Judiciary Committee until 1985. In contrast with his largely conservative record, he generally has supported civil-rights and disability-rights measures.
While education has not been a big focus of his Senate career, some conclusions can be drawn from Mr. Dole's voting record about his beliefs on education.
He has generally voted for voucher programs that would use public money to help families pay private school tuition; he sponsored a $30 million voucher plan in 1994. He also backed a 1978 proposal to provide tuition tax credits to families who send their children to private schools. But Mr. Dole declined that same year to vote for direct federal payments to private or religious schools.
In 1983, Mr. Dole raised the tuition-tax-credit issue again by sponsoring an unsuccessful amendment on that subject.
He has consistently supported efforts to broaden prayer rights in public schools.
Mr. Dole voted against creating the Department of Education in 1979. He has generally opposed amendments to increase federal education spending, especially in the latter part of his Senate career.
The majority leader opposed the Clinton administration education agenda in 1993 and 1994, including the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and the AmeriCorps national-service program.
He also voted against final passage of the legislation that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in October 1994, one of a number of Republicans who sought to deny Mr. Clinton a legislative victory on the eve of the midterm elections.
As a 1996 presidential candidate, Sen. Dole has so far said little more about education than to echo positions common among the Republican field, calling for eliminating the Department of Education, local control of schools, and vouchers for poor families. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)
He attacked the controversial first version of the model national history standards and has supported a House amendment that would allow states to deny the children of illegal immigrants a publicly supported education. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995, and April 17, 1996.)
Observers say that the Dole camp is currently undecided about the direction of his education platform, and that the uncertainty reflects a broader debate under way about the overall direction of his candidacy.
Mr. Dole is reportedly weighing how much his campaign strategy should focus on his role as majority leader. The strategy the candidate chooses, which will also be intertwined with the gop's game plan for the congressional elections, will likely influence his education agenda.
"It depends upon how radical a role he wants to embrace," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow in the Washington office of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
Mr. Finn, who served as an assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration, suggested that, at a minimum, Mr. Dole would use the bully pulpit to discuss such "pro-consumer" education issues as choice, charters, and vouchers.
A more ambitious path would include presenting a package of education legislation for Senate consideration before the election, Mr. Finn said, which might call for eliminating the Education Department, turning over some or all education programs to the states, or implementing a voucher program.
One conservative education advocate who has advised the campaign and asked not to be named said she told Mr. Dole's aides that he should offer such legislation and force Mr. Clinton to veto it.
But there are pitfalls for Mr. Dole in each strategy.
By simply using the bully pulpit, Mr. Dole risks being seen as an all-talk, no-action latecomer to the debate over school reform.
"When you've been around for 32 years and never gone to the mat on it ...," said Mark Weston, the state-services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States in Denver and a former Republican congressional aide.
"I do think, in a sense, he has a weak education hand to play because A) he's not associated with this issue and B) he's urging a broader message of devolution and shrinking the federal role," said Thomas E. Mann, the director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank here.
Mr. Finn maintains that Mr. Clinton's education advantage is narrow. "If you're on a track and you're running 100 laps and someone is on the 10th lap, you can still catch up with them," he said.
But many Republicans admit that President Clinton has the upper hand rhetorically on education, given his high-profile work on the issue as a governor and the unpopularity of recent GOP proposals to cut education spending. They feel they are already on the defensive, and some question whether Mr. Dole has the background and the rhetorical skills to catch up to Mr. Clinton.
"No way," said one observer who follows state and federal education policy. "The [national education] summit probably didn't mean anything to him."
"It's going to be very hard for Dole unless he gets on the ground," Ms. Allen said, "and talks about local control--charters, choice, and decentralization."
Right and Left
Pursuing a legislative strategy could give Mr. Dole more standing to contest Mr. Clinton on education issues. But such a course poses other problems.
Should Mr. Dole actively espouse conservative themes like vouchers, he could anger moderates, such as Republican teachers. An estimated one-third of the 2.2 million members of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, are Republicans.
"These are not liberal Democrats, but they are committed to public education," said John F. Jennings, the director of the nonpartisan Center on National Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide.
One Republican member of the Kansas state school board, who asked not to be named, said some members of the GOP in Mr. Dole's home state might vote against him if his education agenda is too conservative.
"Some of the things he's for, I'm not," the board member said. "We have some staunch Republicans who could go Democratic over education. I don't know if that will happen, but we're concerned about cuts in education."
Conservative education proposals are also unlikely to be enacted, as Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate could probably muster enough votes to mount successful filibusters--making Mr. Dole look ineffectual.
In recent weeks, Mr. Dole has been abandoned by GOP moderates who voted against his proposed amendments to a health-care-reform bill, and he has been outmaneuvered by Democrats who have apparently succeeded in forcing him to schedule a vote on raising the minimum wage.
However, bringing up conservative reform proposals, even unsuccessfully, could shore up support among the Republican Party's core conservative supporters, some of whom have expressed skepticism about Mr. Dole's commitment to their causes.
Phyllis Schlafly, who heads the Alton, Ill.-based Eagle Forum advocacy group, pointed to Mr. Dole's backing for a pending job-training bill, which would consolidate many federal vocational-education and job-training programs. It has been criticized by some conservatives as a "socialist plan" for the federal government to control job placement. (See Education Week, April 17, 1996.)
"The record speaks for itself. That bill went through the Senate by a huge margin," Ms. Schlafly said. "That means it must be a leadership bill."
And Jennifer A. Marshall, an education analyst with the Family Research Council, a research and advocacy organization based here, said Mr. Dole's willingness to "facilitate" education legislation in recent years as Senate minority leader "makes us wonder how committed he is on some of our deepest concerns on education."
But Allyson M. Tucker, a former education analyst with the Heritage Foundation and the director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture's Individual Rights Foundation, defended Mr. Dole.
"No conservative needs to worry about Bob Dole on education," she said. "I've been working with him for a lot of years, and he's solid."