Published Online: September 29, 2011
Published in Print: October 5, 2011, as Federal Education Policy in Cross Hairs as Republican Presidential Hopefuls Spar

Federal Ed. Policy a Whipping Boy for GOP Hopefuls

Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gather prior to debate last week in Orlando, Fla.
—John Raoux/AP

NCLB under withering fire as candidates push agendas designed to curb Washington

The Republicans running for president may be working to stand out from the pack on some issues, but it already appears that most of the nine current candidates are largely united when it comes to K-12 policy: They want to dramatically shrink the federal role.

Some candidates, including U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, are outspoken in saying they want to see the U.S. Department of Education scrapped.

Others, including the current front-runners, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are more nuanced on some education issues but have pumped up their rhetoric around getting the federal government out of schools.

And nearly every candidate is largely disparaging of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which established a federal system of accountability—and became the centerpiece of Republican President George W. Bush’s domestic legacy.

GOP Candidates' Stances

The nine announced Republican candidates for president weigh in on the role of the federal government in education during their Sept. 22 debate in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Fox News and Google:

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota: Would “pass the mother of all repeal bills on education. I would take the entire federal education law, repeal it.”

Herman Cain, former chief executive officer of Godfather Pizza: “All of the programs at the federal level where there’s strings attached, cut all the strings. ... [G]et the federal government out of trying to educate our kids at the local level.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “You need to dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education, get rid of virtually all of its regulations.”

Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico: “I am going to promise to advocate the abolishment of the federal Department of Education.”

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah: “You’ve got to say ‘no’ to unfunded mandates coming out of Washington. ... No one loves their schools more than parents, and local school boards, and local elected officials.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas: “If you care about your children, you’ll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids.”

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas: Good ideas include “cutting back on the Department of Education” and “promoting school choice ... the voucher system, charter schools all across this country.”

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts: “Education has to be held at the state and local level, not at the federal level. We need to get the federal government out of education.”

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania: The education system “doesn’t serve the customer. ... The parents, because it’s the parents responsibility to educate the children.”

That near-united stance marks a shift from the 2000 campaign, when analysts say there were only small distinctions between the K-12 policy platforms of then-Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee. President Bush touted his achievement in passing the NCLB law during the 2004 presidential campaign, while, in 2008, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, largely avoided discussing the specifics of the federal role in education.

Dismantaling the Law?

It’s unclear how the anti-federal stance will play later on in this election cycle, when candidates are likely to move to the center to appeal to moderate and swing voters.

Being against a strong federal role in education is “red meat for the Republican base,” but it may not serve the GOP well in the long term, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has written extensively about the politics of K-12 education.

In 1996, for example, then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the GOP nominee, “adopted a pretty strident right-wing tone on education,” Mr. McGuinn said. That turned out to be a mistake, he said. “People believe in local control, but they also are supportive of a strong national role in K-12 policy. … Calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, it just comes out sounding anti-education.”

But David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works for Republican candidates, said the focus on a leaner federal role largely jibes with current public opinion.

“The country generally tends to lean toward local control,” he said.

The key question that voters want addressed when it comes to K-12, Mr. Winston said, isn’t about the scope of the federal role, but how candidates plan to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for the workforce.

Still, harsh criticism of the NCLB law has some former Bush aides worried about the future of key provisions, such as the focus on the disparities between minority and disadvantaged students and their peers.

“There’s sort of insensitivity to the achievement gap,” said Sandy Kress, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, who served as an education adviser to Mr. Bush as Congress was considering the NCLB law. “I’m troubled by the commitment on that issue. …. A lot more needs to be done, and thoughtful policies are in order.”

Although the Obama administration has just announced a plan to issue waivers from some of the law’s provisions, reauthorization could occur during the next presidential term.

Mr. McGuinn expects that as GOP candidates are pressed to flesh out their K-12 positions, they may borrow ideas already floating around Capitol Hill, including the principles in a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. John Kline, of Minnesota, the chairman of the House education panel. The measure would give districts unprecedented leeway in shifting funds from one federal program to another.

President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top state competition has also come under fire in the campaign, with Gov. Perry attacking Mr. Romney for his support of the program. Mr. Romney said recently that he thought the competition helped push states to adopt policies such as expanding charter schools and encouraging merit pay.

Disdain for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, part of the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package, is to be expected, Mr. Kress said.

Race to the Top took “federal power to a new level,” he said. “If people are going to have trouble with NCLB, they’re really going to have trouble with Race to the Top. It put the department into a position of making decisions about instruction and things that NCLB left to the states.”

Shifting Positions

The two front-runners appear to have had at least some change of heart over the past decade on the NCLB law and the federal role

Back in 2002, when President Bush was in office, Mr. Perry issued a statement that seemed to take pride in the fact that Texas’ own accountability system helped serve as a blueprint for what became the NCLB law.

“Texas was a model for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, and we continue to lead the nation in innovative solutions to improve our schools,” Gov. Perry said in a press release in July 2002.

Now, perhaps more than any governor in the country, Mr. Perry has resisted President Obama’s education agenda, decrying it as federal overreach. His state was one of just six to opt out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and he’s been highly critical of the fact that states were given a leg-up in the Race to the Top competition if they were willing to adopt uniform academic standards. Texas also sat out both rounds of the Race to the Top competition.

But Mr. Perry has been supportive of other concepts that Mr. Obama also embraces. For instance, Mr. Perry helped champion a performance-pay program for teachers, although he signed off on major cuts to the Texas program earlier this year. Mr. Obama has encouraged states to adopt merit pay through Race to the Top.

As a candidate for the GOP nomination in 2008, Gov. Romney was one of the few cheerleaders for the NCLB law on the campaign trail. In fact, during a May 15, 2007, debate, he singled it out as one area where his own views differed from the Republican base.

And, in a speech in Miami last week, Mr. Romney praised President Bush for passing the NCLB law, while in the same breath saying that education is primarily a state responsibility.

“I know this isn’t popular,” he said. “I think President Bush was right to insist states test kids. And I think the reason he was right to do that is that it was hard for states to stand up to the national teachers’ unions. They had so much power.” But then, he added, “I supported that and continue to support testing at the state level of our kids. But the real answer for me on education is get it back to the states.”

Robert Costrell, a longtime adviser to Gov. Romney who is now a professor at the University of Arkansas, said that Mr. Romney supports the NCLB law taken as a whole. Mr. Romney sees a limited, but important, role for the federal government in encouraging practices at the state level, such as accountability and expanded school choice, Mr. Costrell said.

Consistent Critics

But others in the field have been against the NCLB law almost from the start, even when many of their Republican colleagues supported it.

For instance, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2004, now-U.S. Rep. Bachmann worked with Democrats to champion a resolution that would have sought a waiver for Minnesota from the NCLB accountability rules.

As governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman signed a bill in 2005 that would have allowed the state’s own accountability system to trump the NCLB law. The state eventually backed off its stance because it would have meant the loss of Title I money for disadvantaged students.

Related Blog

And back in 2001, Rep. Paul was one of just 41 members of the House of Representatives to vote against the law, because he viewed it as a major expansion of the federal role in K-12.

Now that position is in vogue with more Republicans.

“The politics is shifting,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, who also served as a longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee. “They’re disowning their own past.”

Vol. 31, Issue 06, Page 15

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