Education Seen A Litmus Issue In ’96 Election

By Mark Pitsch — November 29, 1995 8 min read


Education, usually a second-tier issue in presidential campaigns at best, could prove to be a defining theme for President Clinton and his GOP opponents in 1996, political observers say.

Protesting proposed cuts in federal education spending has been a central part of the president’s strategy as he battles with the Republican-controlled Congress over budget priorities. That strategy has been successful in moving public opinion against the GOP plans, and Mr. Clinton may well stick with it through the campaign season.

For his Republican challengers, opposing federal education programs may become an important way to appeal to voters wary of federal intrusion into school policy, particularly the conservatives who wield so much influence in the GOP primaries.

“Education is more politicized, and the camps are more polarized than ever before,” said Mark Weston, the state services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based education-policy clearinghouse.

Many observers say that the current budget battle may foreshadow the tenor of next year’s electoral war.

In speech after speech, event after event, sound bite after sound bite, the president and congressional Democrats have hounded Republicans over the education-spending cuts the GOP says will help reach a balanced federal budget--the centerpiece of the Republicans’ agenda.

“I’m always amazed that Republicans will, when they turn their budget microscope on programs ... turn their microscope on programs that are targeted at the most vulnerable,” White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said at a news briefing last month. “The bottom line is that kids are getting screwed.”

In cutting a deal to reopen federal agencies last week, the White House insisted on a statement that education programs would receive “adequate funding” as the White House and congressional leaders prepare to negotiate a plan to reach a balanced budget. (See related story, page 16.)

Republicans have also invoked the nation’s children in making the case for their budget plans, arguing that the younger generation will face a crushing national debt unless Washington stops the flow of federal red ink.

But polls have shown increasing public wariness over the extent of the proposed cuts.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported last week, 56 percent of those queried said the President’s position on a balanced budget was closer to their own, while 36 percent backed the Republican view. By a 2-1 ratio, respondents said the Republican balanced-budget plan cut too much from domestic programs.

Only 21 percent overall, and only 39 percent of those identifying themselves as Republicans, said they approved “of the way the Republicans in Congress are handling the dispute over the federal budget.”

Other polls have delivered similar messages in recent weeks. While these polls do not specifically mention education programs, Democrats clearly think that education is one of the issues that have scored points for Mr. Clinton.

“Polls show that Democratic leadership in the areas of protecting Medicare, education, and the environment will be a force in next year’s elections,” the Democratic National Committee said in a news release.

The Department of Education has touted the results of two earlier polls for months. In January, a poll by The Washington Post and ABC found that two-thirds of those who supported a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution would withdraw their support if the measure necessitated cuts in education spending.

In a December 1994 poll by the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press, 64 percent of respondents said they would increase education spending if they could set the federal budget.

Asked if Mr. Clinton would continue to underscore his education agenda during next year’s campaign, Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith needed only one word: “Absolutely.”

Republican Moves

At the same time, some of Mr. Clinton’s Republican rivals have made their own use of education issues as they campaign for the Feb. 12 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 20 New Hampshire primary.

At least four GOP candidates have included a call for eliminating the federal Education Department in campaign speeches.

In August, for example, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan lashed out at the department for helping finance the drafting of national history standards.

“They are trying to inculcate and indoctrinate America’s children in their contempt for American history,” Mr. Buchanan told a gathering of United We Stand America, the organization headed by Texas billionaire Ross Perot. “We are Americans. We do not need some character in the Department of Education in sandals and beads telling us how America’s children should be educated.

“This is why we should shut down the Department of Education and give the money back to the states and back to the people.”

Observers say the GOP candidates are trying to appeal to conservatives in the party who are suspicious of federal influence.

Dismantling the Education Department is a plank in the Christian Coalition’s “Contract with the American Family.” (See Education Week, May 24, 1995.)

“I do definitely sense a push from the right to make something happen so [education] could be a litmus test,” said Patty Sullivan, an education-policy analyst with the National Governors’ Association.

A group of House Republican freshmen, who have proposed legislation to abolish the department and replace most federal K-12 programs with a massive block grant, hope to generate discussion of the plan during the primary season and bring it to a vote next summer. (See Education Week, May 31, 1995.)

“To be blunt, that’s what we want to tie it into, the election. Four presidential candidates are talking about getting rid of the Department of Education, and it’s just too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said James Geoffrey, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., who introduced the bill.

Gop candidates have also taken to bashing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which has become a symbol of federal encroachment among conservatives.

The attacks have been especially fierce in politically potent New Hampshire, one of four states not participating in the program. Goals 2000, a Clinton initiative, provides grants to states and localities that agree to set academic standards and accompanying assessments.

The one GOP candidate who has supported Goals 2000, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, announced last week he was suspending his campaign. Mr. Specter has sought to protect the program’s funding, and he drafted a bill that would amend sections of the law that are most troubling to critics. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1995.)

By attacking the federal role in education, Republicans can appeal to those interested in “defederalizing,” said Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

He predicted, however, that most of the GOP candidates’ references to education will be part of a broader discussion of social, cultural, and moral values designed to appeal to religious conservatives.

Welcome Debate

Observers on both sides of the issue said a debate over the federal role in education would be a welcome addition to the presidential campaign.

“Education is often put out there as something that candidates are concerned about, but often takes a back seat to other topics,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group that represents about 80 education organizations and institutions. “This year may be different because so many candidates are opposed to a federal role in education. So there may be an opportunity for a good debate.”

Jennifer A. Marshall, an education-policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a conservative Washington-based advocacy organization, agreed.

“Much of the national climate will yield a really good debate over the federal role,” Ms. Marshall said. “And education is the prime example. Everyone’s concerned about education; whatever your political stripe, you have an opinion.”

But some observers suggest that the debate will likely be more symbolic than substantive.

“I’m not impressed by the depth or honesty of the debate,"said Emmett H. Buell, a professor of political science at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

Mr. Weston of the ECS, a former House Republican aide, agreed that symbolism would win out over substance and produce little more than further acrimony.

“Will education be debated? The answer is yes. Will there be unanim-ity or change as a result? Probably not,” he said. “There’s a concerted effort to point up differences rath-er than to find agreement. There’s a huge amount of common ground, but nobody’s talking about it.”

Strategic Timing

Education issues will also be highlighted by an education summit that is planned for next spring--during the heart of the presidential-primary season.

Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a Republican who is the chairman of both the governors’ association and the ECS, and Louis V. Gerstner, the chairman of ibm, plan to invite governors and business executives to discuss educational technology, academic standards and assessment, issues that have generated bipartisan support at the state level. (See Education Week, Oct. 4, 1995.)

Mr. Thompson--who had been discussed as a potential presidential candidate until he announced last spring that he would not seek the GOP nomination in 1996--has supported the standards-setting movement and programs designed to ease the transition from school to work, themes central to President Clinton’s education agenda. But Mr. Thompson is also a high-profile advocate of publicly funded vouchers that parents can use to send their children to private and religious schools.

The summit, which is still in the formative stages, could be a wild-card influence on the presidential race. It is unclear whether Mr. Clinton or his GOP rivals will be invited.

“It’s strategically timed, let’s just say that,” one observer said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Education Seen A Litmus Issue In ’96 Election