Education and the Democrats: The Contest Begins

By Thomas Toch — February 22, 1984 9 min read

During the debate between the Democratic Presidential candidates staged 10 days ago in Des Moines, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale were asked what they felt the proper federal role in educaàtion should be and what specific programs they would offer to strengthen schools and colleges.

“First of all,” Mr. Mondale replied, “the President must lead in providing financial help for elementary and secondary education... And I have a major, carefully calibrated program to bring that about.”

Mr. Jackson, in his response, said adequate funds are necessary to ensure an “opportunity” for good schooling. But he also talked of a “crisis in effort” in education.

Too many students are watching television instead of studying, school athletics are emphasized at the expense of academics, and parents are failing to discipline their children in the rigors of school work, he said.

The response earned him one of the evening’s loudest rounds of applause from the audience of 3,800 Iowans.

As the eight Democratic contenders prepared for their first major primary con-test this week, the enthusiastic response to Mr. Jackson’s answer, observers of education politics say, pointed to the dilemma the candidates and their party face in carving out effective ways to use the education issue to their advantage in the November election.

The observers note that President Reagan has for months done what Mr. Jack-son did in Iowa--successfully discuss education policy, not in the traditional terms of appropriations levels or new federal initiatives, but by affirming values and beliefs held by many Americans. Mr. Reagan has endorsed prayer, discipline, rewarding merit, and freedom of choice in his recent addresses on education.

The public, if not the education community, has responded favorably to the President’s discussion of education in these terms, polls show. A recent Time/Yankelovich Poll, for example, found that 72 percent of adults favor allowing prayer in schools, while only 18 percent oppose it.

As a result, in spite of Mr. Reagan’s calls in his first three years in office for large cuts in the U.S. Education Department’s budget, the education issue that has traditionally won votes for Democratic candidates is working to Republicans’ advantage, pollsters and others say.

Another recent Time/Yankelovich Poll, for example, found a sharp drop over the past year in the number of people who said the Democratic Party was better able to provide “quality education,” though voters still said by a greater than 2-to-1 margin that the Democrats were more likely provide better schools than Republicans were.

“The President is adroitly talking about nonspending issues and getting himself on the side of angels,” said Paul E. Maslin, vice president of Cambridge Survey Research, a firm founded by Patrick H. Caddell, President Jimmy Carter’s pollster.

Nonetheless, the pollsters say, their research shows that education will still be an important issue to the Democratic candidates.

“The economy and war and peace are the two big issues,” said Mr. Maslin. “But beyond that, education is at the top of the list. It will be a very real issue all year long.”

With some voting groups, the Democratic Party’s performance on education will apparently be particularly important. Women between the ages of 25 and 40 are the most concerned about the condition of the schools and most skeptical of the Democrats’ ability to deal the problem, according to Dotty Lynch, president of Lynch Reseach Inc., Senator Gary Hart’s polling firm.

Support from that group, Ms. Lynch says, is crucial if a Democratic candidate hopes to defeat Mr. Reagan in November.

Focus on Future Challenges

Polls show that “future issues” are rising in importance among many voters and interviews suggest that many Democratic candidates view those issues as a way to counter Mr. Reagan.

The candidates will most often discuss the issue, aides say, as part of an effort to project themselves to voters as best able to address such national challenges as the reshaping of the workforce to take on high-technology occupations and making the country competitive in an increasingly global economy.

This is the apparent strategy of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, Senators John Glenn, Gary Hart, and Ernest F. Hollings, and former Senator George McGovern--candidates who, their aides say, are focusing on education in their campaigns. Advisors to former Gov. Reubin Askew and Senator Alan Cranston say their candidates are placing less emphasis on education in their campaigns. An aide to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson says he will emphasize education in his campaign, using the same tone as he did in the Des Moines debate.

“Education is a surrogate for a discussion about what the future will be like,” said Decker Anstrom, an education advisor to the Mondale campaign. “While Ronald Reagan talks nostalgically about times past, we are going to be talking about the future and his failure to invest in it.”

“The thrust of the [Glenn] campaign is to get the people thinking about the future,” said Michael Wack, Mr. Glenn’s issues coordinator. The Senator makes a point of mentioning his education program at each campaign stop, he added.

Mr. Anstrom, who as an official in the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter Administration helped establish the Education Department, was one of three authors of Mr. Mondale’s $11-billion education program released last May. (See accompanying story on next page.)

The co-authors were Martin Kaplan, Mr. Mondale’s deputy campaign manager for issues and speech writing and formerly executive assistant to U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest L. Boyer, and Bert Carp, a longtime aide to Mr. Mondale and deputy assistant to the President for domestic affairs and policy in the Carter Administration.

Mr. Mondale’s program, which calls for sizable increases in spending for compensatory education and student aid, a $4.5-billion “Fund for Excellence,” an “Education Corps” to attract top teachers, and $1 billion for research, was criticized by the Reagan Administration when it was announced last May as another example of Democratic over-spending.

But Mr. Anstrom says it “dramatically underscores what a Mondale Presidency and a second Reagan Presidency would be like.” Mr. Mondale, he said, sees an important federal role in education and is “prepared to invest” in it.

Senator Glenn has proposed a set of initiatives that would cost an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion. It includes doubling to 2,000 the number of magnet schools in the country and the size of the federal compensatory-education programs, creating 2,000 inservice training centers for teachers, a scholarship program for prospective teachers, awards to outstanding teachers, and a volunteer program for youths.

Senator Hollings has proposed the most costly federal initiative, a $15-billion program to provide a $5,000 salary increase to every teacher in the country; the annual salary supplements would continue indefinitely.

A ‘Stolen’ Issue

Democratic aides say their candidates will make an issue of Mr. Reagan’s attempts to reduce federal support for education in his first three years.

“He has stolen an issue that should have been ours,” said Carolyn T. Kamlet, a legislative aide to Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. “But that hasn’t changed our tack. Once we stack our record up against his, people will understand who is strong for public education.”

Mr. Hart worked closely with the nea in 1982 in drafting the American Defense Education Act, legislation that would provide federal funding to improve the teaching of mathematics, science, computer science, and foreign languages. It is still pending before the Congress.

“Reagan has had an interesting ride,” said Mr. Anstrom of the Mondale campaign. “It’s been him against a cacophany of Democratic voices. When there is a clear alternative to his policies, the situation will change. Mondale is going to expose the Reagan education program for what it is--the most anti-education policy in history.”

“As the campaign progresses people will come to see that the Reagan policy is much like that of the Wizard of Oz--all smoke and illusions,” said Mr. Wack of the Glenn campaign. “Once you take your attention to the man behind the curtain, what has been a Democratic issue will remain a Democratic issue.”

“It is going to be difficult to attack Reagan because many of the things he talks about are close to a lot of people, but when those abstractions are seen in the context of what has actually done in education, you get a different picture,” said Jack Jennings, staff director of the Democratically controlled House Education and Labor Committee. “The point is that there are 2.5 million fewer kids in the school-lunch program and 800,000 fewer in Chapter 1 programs than when Reagan came into office.”

“There is still an opportunity to raise [with voters] the general Reagan insensitivity on the issue and to question whether he really has an education plan for the future,” added Mr. Maslin. “It’s an open question whether the voters really support Reagan on education.”

“We find voters being realistic and very hard-nosed,” said Geoffrey D. Garin, senior vice president of Peter Hart Research Associates, a Washington-based firm that is doing the polling work for the Mondale campaign. “People don’t want money for money’s sake, they want money for quality’s sake. They want to know who’s getting the job done. Education is not a values issue, it’s a performance issue.”

Excellence Versus Access

Nonetheless, Mr. Reagan’s recent success with the education issue seems to have resulted in some re-thinking of policy within some Democratic party quarters.

“The emphasis [within in the Democratic Party] over the last couple of decades was on access to education,” said Mr. From of the House Democratic Caucus. “But there is a change in policy taking place within the party, especially among the younger members. Now the theme is “a return to excellence” in education. The President has done an incredible job of turning education policy into [a discussion of] values and we are trying to do the same thing. Our value is excellence. But in no way are we abandoning the access issue.”

In “Renewing America’s Promise,” a recently published policy “blueprint,” the caucus wrote that although access to education must be preserved for all, “the emphasis in the schools must be on quality.”

According to Linda Tarr-Whelan, director of government relations for the nea and a member of several Democratic Party policymaking bodies, the party will also stress that national resources be used for local programs. “It’s a new thrust,” she said. “In the past, the thinking was, ‘There’s a job out there to be done, the feds should do it’.” The party has not yet begun to draft its 1984 education plaform, she said.

Mr. From of the House Democratic Caucus said it would be a mistake for Democratic Presidential candidates “to harp on Reagan’s budget cuts in education.”

“You’ve got to undersand why the President has been successful. A battle over whether you are going to up the budget a few billion isn’t meaningful to most people. Values and principles are.”

Charlie Euchner contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1984 edition of Education Week as Education and the Democrats: The Contest Begins