Bush Shift Seen On Federal Aid To Teacher Board

By Karen Diegmueller — July 31, 1991 7 min read

Washington--Evidence is mounting that the Bush Administration has abandoned its opposition to federal funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--a shift that would greatly improve the odds that the board will receive new infusions of federal money.

Many Congressional sources and board supporters say the Administration will no longer oppose such aid, and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander indicated in an interview this month that the Administration’s position has indeed changed.

But no official announcement has been made, and other Administration officials, as well as some Congressional observers, said they knew of no such shift.

“I think it’s in the national interest to support [the board],” Mr. Alexander said in the interview, when asked about the issue of federal funding.

Observers who assert that the Administration’s position has changed generally credit Mr. Alexander with engineering the turnabout. The Secretary did not directly acknowledge such a role, but he said: “I don’t have positions independently of the Administration, and I would not have said that [about federal support] without having discussed it within the Administration.”

“I think the board can be a powerful voice for change,” he said, “if they can develop a consensus as to how to evaluate good teaching. ... It could mean that districts all over America could pay good teachers more for teaching.”

The private, nonprofit board was established in 1987 to build a rigorous set of standards for what teachers should know and be equipped to teach, with a view to providing advanced credentials in specific fields. By this process, the board hopes to improve teacher preparation and, ultimately, student learning.

The board estimated it would need $50 million for research and development, half of which it has sought from the federal government. So far, corporate sponsors and foundations have contributed a total of $18 million.

Newfound Friends?

In the past, Bush Administration officials have not officially opposed the board’s work, but have argued vigorously that federal aid for it is inappropriate.

Despite Mr. Alexander’s statements, other Administration officials said that there has been no official reversal, and that members of the Congress have not been formally informed of any change. A few Congressional aides familiar with the issue said they knew of none.

But many Congressional sources and board supporters have been saying since March that Administration officials had quietly indicated they had dropped their active opposition to such funding.

“I haven’t seen anything official, but my understanding is that the Administration has decided to drop this issue,” said an aide to a Democratic senator who supports funding. “The assumption is that the board will be able to get additional funding next year.”

At the board’s national forum held in St. Louis in late June, board officials and other prominent educators hinted that they were confident of federal support. They frequently alluded to the board’s new “friends” in Washington: Mr. Alexander and his deputy secretary, David T. Kearns.

Mr. Kearns was a member of the board until he was tapped this spring for the number-two job in the Education Department. And Mr. Alexander is a longtime supporter of both the board’s work and of differential pay for outstanding teachers.

Parallels With America 2000

At the St. Louis meeting, the education analyst Denis P. Doyle, a member of a small circle of close advisers to Mr. Alexander and a long-time associate of Mr. Kearns’s, lauded the work and the goals of the board. He said he was able to draw parallels between its efforts and the Administration’s education strategy, America 2000.

Mr. Doyle, a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, said he had been asked to fill in at the gathering for the deputy secretary.

Mr. Doyle said that, to his knowledge, President Bush had not affirmed his support of the board, but that the Administration was in the process of doing so. Mr. Doyle suggested that the Administration had reassessed its stance in response to public support for the board’s mission.

The board’s president, James A. Kelly, would neither confirm nor deny reports that Mr. Bush would not oppose additional federal funding. Mr. Kelly did, however, say that the board could count on solid support in Washington. He cited the “splendid cooperation” the panel had received from the Education Department in reaching an agreement governing release of $4.88 million that was appropriated for the board last year.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a member of the board and a Republican, said the Administration probably would not try to block additional federal funding.

Conservative Foes

Still, the Administration apparently remains officially opposed to such funding.

“Nobody has sent me anything indicating that our position has changed,” said Victor F. Klatt, the Education Department’s director of legislation.

A White House official said in May that no change was in the offing. White House officials were unavailable last week to comment on Mr. Alexander’s recent suggestion to the contrary.

Some observers suggested that the Administration may be internally divided on the issue. Others suggested that it does not want to change its position openly because that would anger Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and other conservatives who are steadfastly against federal support for the project.

These foes contend that such aid would give the teaching board a federal imprimatur, which they fear would lead to national teacher-certification standards that would hurt private schools and home schoolers.

Mr. Alexander, who as Governor of Tennessee in the 1980’s drew the wrath of teachers’ unions for his merit-pay system, said he was surprised to find that it was conservatives, not teachers, who were the board’s strongest opponents in Washington.

“I thought I was Alice in Wonderland,” Mr. Alexander said. “The people who back in Tennessee were for teacher evaluation were against it here, and the people who were against it there are for it here.”

‘Silence’ on Supplemental Bill

The inclusion of funds for the board did not imperil the education-appropriations bill for the current fiscal year; likewise, no opposition was voiced in late June when the House approved a fiscal 1992 spending bill that includes another $4.88 million for the board. That sum is also included in a counterpart bill approved by a Senate committee this month.

But Senate conservatives have successfully blocked authorizing legislation that would allow the money to be spent.

The Administration has vigorously opposed such legislation in the past, although it reluctantly agreed last year to back a compromise education package that included such language--a package that was blocked by Senate conservatives, at least partially because of its provision on aid for the board. (See Education Week, Nov. 7, 1990.)

When provisions were included in a supplemental-spending bill in March allowing the board to receive the 1991 appropriation without authorizing legislation, the provisions were listed among those the Administration had objections to in the customary letter it sent to Capitol Hill.

However, Congressional aides said, Administration officials did not actively lobby against the funding, as they had in the past.

“The silence from the Administration was deafening,” said an aide to a key Republican House member who opposes funding. “When we asked, the message we got from them was, ‘Don’t expect any help.”’

“I was told that Lamar Alexander supports the board and wants this issue settled,” a Republican appropriations aide said.

Sally Marnissi, who serves as the board’s lobbyist, also said the Administration did not lobby against the supplemental provisions. The Administration’s “position paper” made “two or three of the arguments they have consistently made about us, but didn’t draw a conclusion” or use the word “oppose,” she said.

Ms. Marnissi said that “it could just have been pragmatism, a question of their not being able to fight all the battles.” But she added that she was “hopeful.”

“I think it was a signal,” Ms. Marnissi said. “If I were advising a senator, I would say this is a strong signal that they are taking a step back.”

Attempts by Mr. Helms to strike the board-related provisions from the supplemental bill failed. The bill won Congressional approval, and President Bush eventually signed it. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bush Shift Seen On Federal Aid To Teacher Board