GOP Calls for Limiting Federal Role in Education

By Erik W. Robelen — July 31, 2000 3 min read
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The Republican Party today adopted a new platform that calls for “progressively” limiting the federal role in education, with an emphasis on providing greater flexibility and increasing school choice.

The final language—approved unanimously by delegates to the GOP’s national convention being held here this week—resulted from negotiations between members of the platform committee who support Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s push for an active federal role and some conservatives who are leery of Uncle Sam’s involvement in education. Gov. Bush is expected to officially accept his party’s nomination for president on Thursday.

Ultimately, the committee produced a document that excluded any reference to eliminating the Department of Education, as the platform proposed four years ago. Even so, it declares that education “is a state, local, and family responsibility, not a federal obligation.”

The platform continues: “Since over 90 percent of public school funding is state and local, not federal, it is obvious that state and local governments must assume most of the responsibility to improve the schools, and the role of the federal government must be progressively limited as we return control to parents, teachers, and local school boards.”

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, the platform committee chairman, praised the final document as “positive, uplifting, and visionary” moments before delegates approved it. The platform provides general direction for the party on a range of issues, but is not binding in any way.

“It reflects Governor Bush’s call to action that no child is left behind,” Gov. Thompson told delegates. “It focuses on educational excellence, strengthened accountability, returning local control, and giving choice to parents, who know what’s best for their children’s education.”

Although the platform reflects some of Gov. Bush’s core education ideas, observers said it does not necessarily embrace all aspects of the Texas governor’s campaign agenda for education.

“You’re seeing the results of this rolling-back and rolling-forward process” in the committee, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. “If 1996 represents zero and 10 is the Bush camp, the platform ended up around a seven” in terms of the federal role in education, he said. “That’s the result of compromises.”

For example, the final document contains softer language on educational accountability—a top priority of Gov. Bush’s—than an earlier draft relesed by party officials last week. The earlier version included the statement, “Accountability is our watchword”; the final document drops this statement while making passing reference to accountability in the context of Mr. Bush’s call for raising standards and increasing local control.

“Republicans had a vigorous debate about the proper role of the federal government in education,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, a senior education analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation who helped staff the platform subcommittee that worked on the education section. “It’s a pretty big accomplishment to take that language out on abolishing the Department of Education.”

Ms. Rees and others also noted that the platform’s language overall is more positive about education than in recent years.

Indeed, Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, said what struck her most about the document was the tone. Forty- two of the more than 4,000 delegates and alternates here are members of the teachers’ union, though the NEA as an organization has endorsed Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

“The entire document is just so much more positive than four years ago,” Ms. Teasley said.

But she added that the union has some major objections to the platform, such as its support for school vouchers for students in failing schools and merit pay for teachers.

The GOP platform also calls for: providing a tax deduction for teachers to help defray out-of- pocket teaching expenses; meeting the long-standing federal goal of paying 40 percent of the costs for school districts to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; and expanding programs that relieve college-loan debt for teachers in “high need” schools. And it reiterates the party’s support for voluntary school prayer, expressing disagreement with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling against student-initiated prayer at sporting events.