Election Notebook

February 23, 2000 3 min read
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Poll: Education Tops List Of Voters’ Concerns

Education is the No. 1 issue for voters this election cycle, according to a survey released last week by the National Education Association.

Forty-two percent of respondents named education as the top priority for additional federal funding, followed by health care at 37 percent and Social Security and Medicare at 33 percent.

The 2.4 million-member teachers’ union commissioned the survey of 1,000 voters from the firms Greenberg Quinlan Research Inc., which has worked for President Clinton and other Democrats, and Voter/Consumer Research, which has a Republican clientele, including Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

Respondents supported a number of specific education goals, many of which are White House initiatives. They include: increased funding for special-needs students (88 percent), college scholarships to attract good students to teaching (85 percent), financial incentives to attract and retain good teachers (82 percent), increased funding for low-income districts (82 percent), national certification standards for all teachers (80 percent), a $3 billion allotment for school construction and modernization (78 percent), and the hiring of 100,000 new teachers (75 percent).

The voters did veer from the Democratic platform on education savings accounts, a Republican plan to create tax-free accounts that would allow parents to save for a wide variety of education expenses, including private school tuition. Forty-nine percent of survey respondents favored the accounts, while 42 percent opposed them.

While Democrats who were surveyed mostly supported a larger role for the federal government in education, by 48 percent to 23 percent, Republicans did not share that sentiment. Only 27 percent of Republicans supported a larger role; 52 percent were against.

Two scholars from the Brookings Institution have some advice for political candidates when it comes to federal education policy: Fix existing programs before creating any new ones.

Diane Ravitch and Tom Loveless offer that suggestion and others to presidential and congressional contenders in an article that will appear next month in The Brookings Review, the Washington think tank’s quarterly magazine.

“Education has emerged as one of the major issues in the 2000 presidential campaign,” the article states. “Candidates in both political parties sometimes seem in a bidding war to see who can devise the most new government programs.”

Ms. Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a research professor at New York University, served as an assistant secretary of education during the Bush administration. Mr. Loveless is the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.

The scholars argue that federal education programs, especially the two largest—Title I for disadvantaged students and special education—must be improved, a process that requires evaluations to determine which approaches work and which do not. They also say federal mandates, such as those under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, should be in line with the revenues required to meet them.

“Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to assume the full costs for special education,” Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Loveless write. “Districts would be free to use $37 billion of their own money to reduce class size, hire new teachers, train their staff, add technology, or do whatever was most needed in their own schools.”

The two also suggest that federal dollars be sent to schools in the “most direct route possible.” And they urge policymakers to resist the temptation to regulate school decisions on such matters as curriculum, instruction, teacher hiring, and discipline, which they say are best made by local officials.

"[A] new administration and a new Congress have an historic opportunity to carve out a productive federal role in education,” they write. “If they seize it—if they make existing federal programs work as intended and remove burdensome rules and regulations associated with them—they can unleash the energies of local schools on behalf of the children they serve.”

—Joetta L. Sack & Erik W. Robelen

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Election Notebook


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