Kerry Highlights Accountability, Class Sizes

September 21, 2004 6 min read
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In accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president here July 29, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts touched only briefly on education, sounding familiar themes like support for strong accountability while advocating smaller class sizes and new college tuition aid. He also delivered a stinging critique of President Bush’s efforts last year to cut federal aid for after-school programs.

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Audio Extras:

  • Education Week editor Mark Walsh reports on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s appearance at an early childhood education forum. (2:27) Windows Media format | MP3 format

“Our education plan for a stronger America sets high standards and it demands accountability from parents, teachers, and schools,” Mr. Kerry said to an arena packed to the brim with delegates and other loyal Democrats on the final night of the four-day Democratic National Convention. “It provides for smaller class sizes and it treats teachers like the professionals they are. And it gives a tax credit to families for each and every year of college.”

Mr. Kerry, who talked at length about his life and experiences in the speech, reminded listeners of his background as a local prosecutor in explaining his education agenda.

“When I was a prosecutor, I met young kids who were in trouble, abandoned, all of them, by adults,” he said. “And as president, I am determined that we stop being a nation content to spend $50,000 a year to send a young person to prison for the rest of their life, when we could invest $10,000 a year in Head Start, Early Start, Smart Start, a real start …" Consistent with the convention’s focus overall, education was overshadowed by other issues in Mr. Kerry’s speech, especially foreign policy and homeland security. (“Ed. Issues Take Back Seat at Convention,” Web only, July 29, 2004.)

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republicans on the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, offered a sharp rebuttal the next day to the address.

“Senator Kerry said relatively little about education during the speech, and that was probably by design,” he said. “What Americans did hear on education last night were the words of a politician who is unwilling to challenge the education establishment on behalf of children, parents, and good teachers who don’t subscribe to the radical liberal political agenda of the [National Education Association].”

Mr. Kerry has rolled out a range of education proposals during his campaign. He has promised to create what he calls an Education Trust Fund that would “fully fund” programs under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and dramatically increase spending on special education.

He has put forward a package of teacher measures that would offer greater supports for teachers in return for new demands, such as teacher testing and mechanisms to make it easier to replace ineffective teachers. He’s also pitched measures that would increase pay for teachers in the schools and subjects where high-quality teachers are in short supply, and he is calling for financial incentives for teachers who improve student achievement.

In addition, he’s proposed initiatives to help increase high school graduation rates, especially for poor and minority students, who drop out at alarmingly high rates.

Mr. Kerry’s speech was heavy on criticism of President Bush’s administration, and at one point he weaved education into the attack.

“For four years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans,” he said. “You don’t value families by kicking kids out of after-school programs and taking cops off the streets, so that Enron can get another tax break.”

In his budget request for fiscal 2004, which ended last Sept. 30, President Bush requested a reduction in spending on the federal after-school program from nearly $1 billion to $600 million. He cited a federal study suggesting the program was not proven effective in improving student achievement.

That proposal was harshly attacked by Democrats, and even some Republicans said it was not a cut they were prepared to support. Ultimately, Congress kept funding steady. In the budget for fiscal 2005 that Mr. Bush submitted to Congress in February, he did not seek again to cut the program, instead requesting level funding.

In mentioning smaller class sizes in his speech, Mr. Kerry touched on an issue that’s especially popular in the Democratic Party, and with the nation’s two major national teachers’ unions, both of which have thrown their weight behind the Kerry campaign for president.

President Clinton pushed hard to create a class-size-reduction program, despite strong resistance from Republicans in Congress. However, under President Bush, that program was merged into a larger spending pot that also is aimed at improving teacher quality. Democrats have argued that a separate program is needed to ensure a focus on helping to keep class sizes small. Republicans say it’s better to give states and school districts wider discretion in how to spend the aid.

Mr. Kerry made no explicit mention in his speech of the No Child Left Behind Act, a signature accomplishment of the Bush administration and the centerpiece of federal K-12 education policy since the president signed it into law January 2002. The law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was co-written by leading Democrats in Congress. It passed with wide, bipartisan support—including the votes of Sen. Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But it has been subject to increasing attacks, including from teachers’ unions, many Democrats, and even some Republicans, particularly state legislators.

Mr. Kerry and other Democrats have long argued that President Bush does not support what they deem adequate funding for the ambitious school improvement measure, which imposes some heavy demands on states and school districts to raise student achievement. The Bush administration is quick to note that overall spending on K-12 programs has grown dramatically since the president took office in January 2001.

During the presidential-primary season, the federal law became a target for the Democratic candidates, including Mr. Kerry, who often referred to it as a “one-size-fits-all” approach, echoing a phrase used by the National Education Association. Avoiding such an approach “means judging schools on more than just test scores,” he said in a campaign speech last November in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

However, his rhetoric toward the law has seemed to soften more recently.

Mr. Schnittger, the House Republican aide, said the nominee’s acceptance speech “was more notable for what it didn’t say about education than what it did say. It was clearly watered down to appease lobbyists who want less accountability and more money, despite the fact that Senator Kerry can’t explain where that money would come from.”

Mr. Kerry said in the speech, as he has elsewhere, that the money for his spending increases in education and elsewhere would be paid for by undoing recent tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

“I will roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals who make over $200,000 a year,” he said, “so we can invest in health care, education, and job creation.”


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