GOP Signals Platform Shift On Education

By Erik W. Robelen — August 02, 2000 7 min read

A proposed platform drafted for this week’s Republican National Convention would drop the party’s 1996 call for eliminating the Department of Education, even while vowing to “test the department and each of its programs.”

The document, which was subject to revision over the weekend before being submitted to the GOP delegates, reflected the more moderate stance on school issues taken by the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

Its release late last week came as Democrats were hammering Mr. Bush’s designated vice presidential running mate, former Secretary of Defense and U.S. Rep. Richard B. Cheney, for his conservative record on education and other issues as a member of Congress—including his 1979 vote against creation of the department.

The developments offered a fitting build- up to the quadrennial national conventions, in which both major parties are expected to give education prominent attention.

Education and health care were slated to take center stage Monday, the first day of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. The Texas governor’s wife, Laura Bush—a former school librarian and teacher who has said she would make education her central issue as first lady—and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell were scheduled to be the featured speakers.

Education will also receive plenty of attention later this month when the Democrats hold their convention in Los Angeles, consistent with the emphasis the presumptive Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, has placed on the issue, a party spokesman promised.

“Education is clearly one of the most important issues of the campaign,” said Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the Democratic National Convention Committee. “Rest assured, it will be an issue that has prominence at our convention.”

‘Step Forward’

The GOP draft platform highlighted many of the education proposals that Mr. Bush has outlined during his presidential campaign, including his calls for increased flexibility in spending federal aid in exchange for more accountability. It also echoed his emphasis on school choice and “opportunity scholarships,” which would use federal dollars to support vouchers for students in failing schools.

“We advocate choice in education, not as an abstract theory, but as the surest way for families, especially low-income families, to free their youngsters from failing or dangerous schools,” the draft said.

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House education committee, described the draft platform’s elimination of a call for abolishing the Education Department as “a step forward for our party.”

As of last Friday, the platform committee was reviewing the document. A vote on the platform by the full convention was scheduled for July 31.

On the Democratic side, a July 20 draft of the party platform signals a greater emphasis on tough accountability measures for schools, teachers, and states than was seen in its 1996 version. But in contrast to the Republican draft, it stresses the need for more spending.

“Al Gore and the Democratic Party know that investments without accountability are a waste of money and that accountability without investments are a waste of time,” the draft says.

The draft criticizes the Republican support of vouchers. “Their version of accountability relies on private school vouchers that would offer too few dollars to too few students to escape their failing schools,” it says.

The Democratic platform committee was expected to wrap up work this past weekend on a final proposal for its convention, scheduled for Aug. 13-17 in Los Angeles.

While party platforms generally do not drive policy, the documents do provide the parties an opportunity to reassess their directions, some analysts suggest.

“This is not the Talmud, this is not the Koran. This is a committee document that does, generally speaking, chart a course for the party,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.

Targeting Cheney

Meanwhile, Democrats and their supporters were pouncing on Gov. Bush’s choice for a running mate.

Education is not exactly an issue that comes to mind when a former defense secretary’s name is mentioned. That said, Mr. Cheney has a clear—and very conservative—voting record in Congress on education.

Last week, the Democratic National Committee sought to portray Mr. Cheney as an extremist, noting that he voted in favor of education spending cuts, opposed legislation to reauthorize and fund the Head Start program, and supported a measure that would have denied federal aid to any school district that restricted “silent or vocal prayer” in school.

“Dick Cheney has a long record of voting against the health and education interests of children,” contended Gregory J. King, the press secretary for the 1 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Vice President Gore for president. “If this is any indication of George W. Bush’s plans for future appointments, then it’s a very troubling sign.”

In an interview last week on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Mr. Cheney responded to criticism of his record as a member of the House of Representatives from Wyoming from 1979 to 1989.

“We had huge budget deficits, and at the same time we had some significant defense needs,” said Mr. Cheney, who headed the Department of Defense when Gov. Bush’s father was in the White House. “One of my major concerns ... was the notion of fiscal responsibility, of finding ways to gain control over federal spending, to reduce federal spending, and to move towards a balanced budget.”

He added: “We now have a significant surplus, and we’re now in a position to be able to look at doing some things from the compassionate standpoint, for example, that we simply couldn’t afford 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”

As part of his presidential campaign, Gov. Bush has outlined a series of education proposals that would increase federal spending by more than $15 billion over five years, including new programs for reading, science and math instruction, and charter schools. He also advocates more flexibility in exchange for tougher accountability demands on states and districts.

Mr. Bush has made it clear he would not support the elimination of the Education Department. Though Mr. Cheney voted against the creation of the department, that stance was not unusual at the time. The federal Office of Education was part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the AFT and some Democrats were among those opposed to creating a separate department.

Lynne Cheney’s Record

When it comes to education, Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne V. Cheney, is much better known than her husband. Ms. Cheney, who served on the advisory team that Gov. Bush put together early in his campaign to help devise his education policy proposals, said on CNN last week that she hopes to continue to work on education if Mr. Cheney becomes vice president.

Ms. Cheney served as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1992, under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and currently is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. She has vigorously attacked so-called “whole math” and championed phonics-based reading instruction. She also has been a prominent critic of what she views as “political correctness” in academia.

In 1995, she provoked widespread debate when she wrote a scathing column in The Wall Street Journal attacking the proposed voluntary national standards for U.S. history.

Some participants in the standards-writing effort said they found her salvo troubling because she had helped finance the standards project—which brought together a broad-based panel of experts to reach consensus in devising the standards—when she headed the NEH. During the development of the standards, she had made public statements applauding the progress being made. (“Playing Games With History,” Nov. 15, 1995.)

Ultimately, the standards documents were revised, largely by the elimination of certain controversial teaching activities.

Several Republicans involved in education issues, who asked not to be named, said last week that her views on education were more conservative than Gov. Bush’s. “She is more of a purist and a partisan,” one of those sources said.

But word that Lynne Cheney would be part of the campaign was heartening to many conservatives. “We’ve been very proud of her record,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, the chairman of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition. “I believe she will do a lot for education.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as GOP Signals Platform Shift On Education