No Lack of Policy Advice For New President, Congress

By Erik W. Robelen — February 14, 2001 3 min read

While President Bush already has some clear ideas about federal education policy, it hasn’t deterred an onslaught of advice for him and his congressional counterparts.

One popular way for education groups and think tanks to get their messages out is through shiny policy documents, distributed to federal lawmakers and an incoming administration.

“This is a time-honored way of getting your marker out there,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here and an expert on Congress.

The round of reports pegged to the postelection turnover of power began arriving as early as December, but even last week a few more came out. The timing is no accident; with Mr. Bush making education his first policy priority, now is the time for organizations to make their views known.

Of course, the president and Congress aren’t starting with a blank slate. Mr. Bush has already unveiled his own blueprint for the federal role in K-12 education, and several education bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill. But the process of hashing out the details of legislation Congress would pass and the president would sign is only just beginning.

The degree of influence such reports have is hard to gauge, but at times it has been substantial. For example, a Heritage Foundation report released at the start of the Reagan administration 20 years ago made a splash.

"[President] Reagan handed out copies at the first Cabinet meeting,” said Michael G. Franc, the vice president of government relations at the Washington-based think tank. “That’s the kind of lore that’s repeated early and often around this building.”

‘Synergy of Thinking’

Some of the documents are strikingly similar.

For example, Heritage, the Education Leaders Council, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, all of which have a conservative tilt, have offered some nearly identical proposals for how to make K-12 policy more flexible, for strengthening accountability, and even for what to do with the Head Start program. (They’d move it to the Department of Education, an idea that President Bush also proposed in his campaign.)

“It’s sort of a consensus that’s been developing from reformers,” said Gary M. Huggins, the executive director of the ELC, a group of state officials that was formed as an alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“There’s an awful lot of synergy of thinking going on, which I think is healthy,” Mr. Franc added.

Much less popular now are calls to do away with the federal role in education, though the libertarian Cato Institute still advocates that position.

Machine Gun Approach

Reports alone only go so far, Mr. Huggins cautioned. “I think what matters most is the follow- up,” he said, promising that lawmakers and the administration will get plenty from ELC members.

A few of the major think tanks here, including the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute, don’t issue broad policy documents at all.

“We never do that,” Mr. Ornstein of the AEI said. “It’s partly because ... we don’t have a uniform set of views on things.”

Of course, the AEI has other means of influence. Beyond issuing policy studies on specific issues, the think tank has a few personal ties to the new administration as well. Most notably, Lynne V. Cheney, the wife of Vice President Richard B. Cheney and a former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is also a fellow at the think tank. Lawrence Lindsey, another AEI scholar, is now the assistant to the president for economic policy.

Similarly, the Heritage piece on education was written by Nina Shokraii Rees, who was just named deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Cheney.

John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, has an inside perspective on what generally happens to the policy recommendations, having served as a longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

He said most lawmakers themselves don’t read the reports, though some staff members do, particularly on the committees of concern.

“It’s like a machine gun. You’ve got to shoot a lot of bullets to just get a couple hits,” said Mr. Jennings, whose organization released its own recommendations last week. “If you could write something that would be read by six senior members’ aides, then ... you’ve scored a hit.”

The reports can be most effective when they make similar points, Mr. Jennings argued, noting that many of the documents agree, for instance, on retaining a separate Title I program for disadvantaged students.

“If members are hearing all sorts of people say, ‘Retain Title I in some way,’ it has [a significant influence],” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as No Lack of Policy Advice For New President, Congress