Conservative-Leaning Think Tanks Putting Imprint on Education Policy

By Karen Diegmueller — March 24, 1993 10 min read

When Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin presented his 1994 budget last month, two of the most eye-catching education proposals were based in part on the work of a Milwaukee-based think tank that has become an increasingly important player in state-policy debates.

Plans to eliminate student busing as a desegregation tool and to expand the state’s existing voucher program for low-income Milwaukee students were attributed in some measure to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which had conducted studies on the busing and school-choice programs.

“We have utilized a number of studies that the institute has done,’' said Thomas J. Fonfara, the Governor’s policy director. “They provide a tremendous public service.’'

A radically different perspective on the research institute and its work, however, was provided by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover.

“It’s not a think tank,’' said Mr. Grover, who is leaving office this spring. “It’s a political hatchet operation for the right wingers.’'

The Wisconsin institute is one of the most prominent of a score of state-based think tanks established nationwide since the mid-1980’s to help shape public policy. Most are seen as politically conservative, and many have been dismissed by their critics as “single issue’’ groups promoting school choice.

But observers say that a number of the think tanks have allayed fears that they would sacrifice fair analysis for the sake of ideology, and in so doing have gained respect and a degree of influence over policymakers.

At a minimum, analysts say, the institutes’ presence has broadened the debate over education reform.

“We don’t always agree with everything they do, but they liven the public debate,’' said Mark S. Pritchett, the vice president of education programs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Although education has not been the primary mission of the think tanks, they arrived on the scene at a time when the publication of A Nation At Risk had focused increased attention on state school-reform efforts.

Coupled with the growing share of state resources channeled to the schools, the fertile climate for education reform made it a natural theme for think tanks at the state level.

Apart from the groups with a vested interest in education, such as the teachers’ unions, there were few state organizations capable of providing policymakers with information.

“They were coming into a vacuum,’' said Carolyn D. Herrington, an associate professor at the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. “There are not a lot of voices out there.’'

The think tanks, she said, had a ready-made audience in the legislatures, governors’ offices, and education departments.

A Range of Issues

The groups have made their mark on a range of education issues.

A study by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, for example, illustrated the erosion of education standards in the state, including what it said were simplistic questions on the test for high school graduation.

In Pennsylvania, work by the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives has included a report on fiber-optic technology in schools and elsewhere.

The Commonwealth Foundation also plans shortly to unveil what its president calls a “character-education movement.’'

“It has absolutely nothing to do with politics or philosophy,’' said Don E. Eberly, the president of the Harrisburg-based think tank. “We will have brought people in from all points on the philosophical spectrum . . . to forge a new consensus on what are the basic, core civic values that ought to be imparted in the schools.’'

Meanwhile, the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey has explored such issues as transportation safety, student access to extracurricular activities, and the accuracy of student-dropout rates.

One report concluded that the state underestimates the dropout rate of Latino students.

As a result of the institute’s work, “we will have the statistics to demonstrate that there is a problem,’' said Carlos Pacheco, the chairman of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Congress of New Jersey.

“What we’ve tried to do on schooling-related issues is probably different from [other] state-level think tanks,’' said Dave Kehler, the president of the Princeton-based institute. “We’ve raised issues that have been neglected matters’’ specific to New Jersey.

“Most of the [others] may be interested in promoting school choice or other issues that are central to a national agenda of school reform,’' said Mr. Kehler.

Focus on Choice

Indeed, while the the New Jersey group has not looked at the choice issue, other think tanks have made it a major focus and entered the political arena in order to bring it about.

“We certainly see education choice as a cutting-edge issue. Most everything else that would [improve education] would follow,’' said Lawrence W. Reed, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.

To abide by federal tax laws, some of the groups have spun off organizations whose role is to foster choice.

The James Madison Institute for Public Policy Studies, for example, founded Floridians for Educational Choice.

“The primary reason is to keep to our mission, which is a think tank. Floridians for Educational Choice is set up to lobby for choice,’' said John W. Cooper, the institute’s president.

The institute, he said, concentrates on developing ideas that might take five to 10 years to mature.

Because the groups have tended to focus on choice, though, some observers suggest they have neglected the issues most central to reform.

“I believe they have focused on some of the peripheral issues,’' said Helen E. Caffrey, the staff director of the Pennsylvania Senate education committee. “But on the major issues of the day--finance equity and [outcome-based education]--they have not been a player.’'

The James Madison Institute participates in all of the hearings on vouchers, noted Jeff Wright, the president of Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A. But when it comes to other education issues, such as the state’s major undertaking to shift to an outcome-based system, he added, “you don’t hear very much from them.’'

Stretching the Debate

The work of the think tanks is carried out on several fronts.

Some organizations contract out research to academics, while others perform their research in house. Some do a bit of both.

The research, as lengthy as a book or as short as a four-page briefing paper, generally is sent to legislators, other policymakers, and the media.

The think tanks also disseminate their work through op-ed pieces for newspapers or by sponsoring forums.

“Once we develop ideas, we pretty much leave them to others to implement and to debate,’' said Matt Glavin, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “We want to stretch the window of debate.’'

That does not mean, however, that the think tanks always eschew a hands-on approach. They testify before legislative committees and, in some instances, have drafted bills.

The Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Massachusetts, for instance, helped write an alternative education-reform bill at the request of the administration of Gov. William F. Weld.

“That is not usually our approach,’' said Steven F. Wilson, the president of the Pioneer Institute. “Our approach is to try to affect the intellectual climate. This is an unusual level of involvement for us.’'

‘Ideas That Work’

But many educators and politicians are wary of the think tanks’ motives and research and see their true aim as advancing a conservative political agenda.

In Pennsylvania last year, lawmakers nearly adopted a school-voucher program before opponents mounted a counter campaign. Mr. Eberly of the Commonwealth Foundation was a member of the coalition advocating the measure.

To the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Mr. Eberly’s involvement crossed the thin line between research and advocacy.

“We were concerned that his position with the foundation was being used . . . to lend credence to the voucher idea,’' said Donald F. Morabito, the assistant executive director for government relations for the union.

Union officials asked for a meeting with Mr. Eberly, who downplayed their concerns.

Some think-tank leaders bristle at the conservative label and the allegations of ulterior motives that have been applied to them.

“I know that some people try to put a spin on the state-policy movement. I personally am troubled by it,’' said Mr. Eberly. “I am not promoting business interests, and I am not promoting an ideology. We are pushing ideas that work.’'

Though bothered by the characterization, Mr. Eberly said he understands why it happens. “I have found that state-policy climates are very parochial; there is a fixed set of players,’' he said. “New arrivals . . . are viewed with a certain wariness.’'

James Miller, the president of the Wisconsin institute, chooses another term altogether.

Before moving to Wisconsin, Mr. Miller noted, he was deputy commissioner of commerce under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York.

“The status quo says we’re conservative. I happen to think we’re reformist,’' Mr. Miller said. “Somehow driving from New York to Wisconsin, you become conservative.’'

Few Liberal Institutes

Still, most think tanks seem comfortable owning up to a free-market philosophy.

“In the real world, every think tank out there has a particular political spot on the map. That is how it should be,’' Mr. Cooper of the James Madison Institute said. “It’s not the nature of the think tank to be a sounding board for all the things that are believed.’'

But few of the research institutes appear to be liberal-leaning.

“It is very difficult to find a liberal think tank operating. Liberal politics at the state level tend to be constituency politics,’' said Mr. Kehler, whose New Jersey group considers itself nonideological--a claim that is given credence by the wide range of groups that hold it in esteem, including the New Jersey Education Association.

“They’re often provocative; we don’t always agree with them,’' said Lynn Maher, a spokeswoman for the teachers’ union. “On the whole, we have the greatest respect for their contributions.’'

Educators’ and policymakers’ views of the think tanks in their states vary widely, however.

“They are very highly respected,’' said Sen. Arthur E. Chase of Massachusetts about the Pioneer Institute.

“They have come out with good information [and] their logic has always been good,’' said Mr. Chase.

Conversely, Richard Collins, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has only reproach for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

“I think there is a place for legitimate criticism and for scholarly research,’' Mr. Collins said. “But my problem as an educator is seeing an organization which misinterprets data for its own ideological ends.’'

Measuring Success

The most potent question about the institutes is whether they have influenced state policies.

“I don’t think anything is done because of us,’' said Mr. Miller. “We just do public-policy studies. If people want to use it, that’s fine. We just do it because we are trying to improve accountability.’'

One way of quantifying success is by looking at the think tanks’ impact on the media. The Mackinac Center counted 657 news clips in 1992 in Michigan papers alone.

Beyond exposure to ideas, though, observers are still uncertain whether the groups have been able to get policymakers and the public to embrace their ideas.

“I see the study; I see the newspaper coverage,’' said Senn Brown, the director of legislative services for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. “Beyond that, I’m not aware of their follow-up with key decisionmakers.’'

In Colorado, the Independence Institute was instrumental in getting a choice referendum on the ballot last fall, but it was defeated.

In Florida, several bills on choice have been introduced in recent years. Although none has passed, each year the legislation has gained a bit more support.

In any case, the think tanks appear to be in it for the long haul.

“The Independence Institute is convinced that their analysis is correct,’' said Michael J. Murphy, the director of the Colorado Education Policy Consortium at the University of Colorado, “that competition is necessary, that parents need to have choice, and that ultimately, if they keep putting the issue in front of people and keep arguing the issues, that more and more people will come to embrace that position, particularly as there is more dissatisfaction with school systems.’'

“The telltale indicator is not what did you get but where are you going. Is momentum going in your direction or in the opposite direction?’' said John Carlson, the president of the Washington [State] Institute for Policy Studies.

“The most understated virtue of politics is patience,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1993 edition of Education Week as Conservative-Leaning Think Tanks Putting Imprint on Education Policy