Education Opinion

Electioneering on Education: What Comes Next?

By Bruno V. Manno — January 15, 1997 9 min read

There are two stories to tell about last year’s education electioneering. One is about how the Republican-controlled Congress took a U-turn on education issues. The upshot is that mostly Great Society, big-government programs that have long outlived their usefulness now not only have new life; they have more money than the Clinton administration originally requested.

After two years of a Republican-controlled Congress and the “Contract with America,” not one major federal education program has been block-granted or devolved, let alone scrapped. The most the Republicans were able to achieve (with administration acquiescence) involved repealing some obnoxious elements of Goals 2000.

The second story concerns the presidential election. There we saw Republican and Democratic platforms and presidential candidates presenting sharply differing perspectives on how to solve the problem of what the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls the “mediocre performance” of U.S. elementary and secondary school students.

President Clinton’s view was mostly vintage Great Society, catering to the wants of education experts--the producers--and pushing an intrusive, resource-focused, Uncle-Sam-knows-best approach.

Challenger Bob Dole’s was mostly consumer- and results-oriented, proposing to shift power and control in education from the producers to parents and other civilians, helping children flee from bad schools and attend those that work.

About the only K-12 agenda item on which they agreed was charter schools. Both pledged support for these new, independent public schools that swap rules and regulations for results.

The battle over the U.S. Department of Education’s budget ended with Republicans leading a whimpering retreat rather than anything resembling a battle of ideas on the proper federal role in education. This outcome means that present federal policy remains virtually unchanged since the 1960s.

The overall 1997 budget raises federal education spending by slightly more than $2 billion over 1996. This gives department programs $31.1 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, surpassing the president’s budget request by nearly $1 billion.

This surprising action led Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to proclaim, “The result is a truly remarkable turn of events for the department. ...”

The Republican revolutionaries have come full circle with this budget agreement. They’ve endorsed the Democrats’ main rallying cry in education: Being compassionate and caring on the education front means increased money from Uncle Sam supporting old-style, big-government programs that do more of the same old things.

The presidential-election story presented “starkly different visions for the future of America’s schools.” Thus did Education Week aptly summarize the chasm on education issues between Democratic candidate Clinton and Republican candidate Dole. (“Dole, Clinton at Sharp Odds on Education,” Sept. 4, 1996.)

For the most part, the candidates’ words and actions reflected those sharp differences.

Mr. Clinton was endorsed by both major teachers’ unions, received the National Education Association’s Friend of Education Award, and promised a raft of new federal programs to alleviate our education ills: school construction grants; anti-truancy grants; a tax credit for the first two years of college costs; establishing a national reading corps to tutor K-3 students; free basic access to the Internet. The program list was endless.

Mr. Clinton’s election ads were laundry lists of big-government strategies, spending schemes, and federal programs he supports. Moreover, they attacked Mr. Dole for opposing these programs.

Despite having declared that the “era of big government is over,” the president talked up big government and reinforced the charge made against him that he talks right and governs left.

This resource-based approach is vintage Great Society. It relies on federally funded services and programs aimed to benefit a variety of groups. It’s based on the notion that Uncle Sam knows what’s best for communities and what communities must do to cure their education problems.

Moreover, it’s producer-oriented, with bureaucrats, experts, and special interests controlling the system and making decisions within the framework of a public school monopoly.

Mr. Dole attacked the unions while supporting teachers and extolled giving families choices among all schools, including religious ones. He offered what he called an education “consumer’s warranty” that focuses on the results American taxpayers, parents, employers, and other consumers should expect in return for their investment in education.

This consumer orientation is far more radical in its potential for changing our “mediocre” schools than Bill Clinton’s approach. It would shift power to parents, families, and other taxpayers and would hold schools genuinely accountable by giving children real alternatives to bad schools. It would loosen Uncle Sam’s grip on the country’s schools and teachers by sending responsibility for programs to states, communities, and families.

The irony of this situation is that in March of 1996 Mr. Clinton delivered an address to the governors’ education summit that was consumer-oriented, adding education to the list of Republican issues he had co-opted. Even some conservative commentators said that Ronald Reagan could have happily delivered it.

The president endorsed higher state education standards. He called for hard work by students, for the end of social promotions, and for the installation of an “assessment system with consequences.”

He praised the move to stress basic skills, which should “begin with a concrete standard for reading and writing.” He urged that principals be held accountable for their schools and that bad teachers be dismissed, using a “process [that] has to be much faster and far less costly than it is.” He even declared that “we cannot ask the American people to spend more money on education until we do a better job with the money we’ve got now.”

Moreover, in the first presidential debate with Bob Dole, Mr. Clinton seemed to forgo the opportunity to offer any argument against school vouchers--though he did state that federal funds should not be used for such a program.

Furthermore, he implied that his administration would not create obstacles or oppose efforts by states and communities to experiment with vouchers for low-income students.

To quote one of his three debate statements on this issue: “If a local school district in Cleveland, or any place else, wants to have a private-school-choice plan, like Milwaukee did, let them have at it.”

Americans sense that the nation remains at risk due to the mediocre performance of our schools and the weak achievement of our children, despite the billions we spend annually on K-12 education.

According to a pre-election Washington Post survey, education is the nation’s No. 1 worry: Sixty-two percent said they feared that the nation’s schools will get worse, not better, higher than 80 other selected worries on America’s list of priorities.

In a Wall Street Journal poll taken just before the election, four in 10 voters said education should be one of the president’s top two priorities. It ranked evenly as the top concern with keeping the economy healthy.

Other surveys--especially those conducted by the nonprofit group Public Agenda--show a changed-minded public focused in on common-sense steps to improve the schools: safe and disciplined learning environments with high standards for student behavior; schools that build on the “basics” and have high standards of student achievement; tests that matter, that have consequences for promotion, graduation, and employment; and more choices of schools.

Depending upon how the question is phrased, even such once heretical notions as school vouchers now attract majority support, with particularly strong support from urban minority parents whose children are compelled to attend schools that are unsafe and educationally bankrupt.

With the right kind of leadership, especially at the federal “bully pulpit” level, a thorough overhaul could be imagined.

Bill Clinton now faces a clear choice on education policy and the future of our schools. Will he take the walk down the consumer-policy path he outlined during the summit and the first debate? Or will it be the producer-policy path of more big-government, Great Society programs based on the premise that Uncle Sam knows best?

One of his former key domestic-policy advisors, William Galston, writing in the post-election issue of The New Republic, believes that the way the president handles this issue--along with welfare reform and the Medicare problem--will determine the lasting significance of his presidency.

For Mr. Galston, “The appropriate policy response is conceptually simple but politically difficult.” Mr. Galston outlines a policy agenda that includes rigorous academic standards, tests with consequences, and innovations outside the conventional public school structure, including charter schools, private management, and vouchers for low-income students.

William Galston is not naive. He knows almost anything along this line will generate a firestorm: The right will see expanded federal control coming with items like standards and tests, and the left will fear the impact that items like charter schools and vouchers will have on the unions and the public school monopoly.

Mr. Galston urges on the president “the path of bold innovation [so that] he could go down in history as the man who set democratic education on the path to excellence.”

How might he begin? He could start with a bipartisan gesture in his State of the Union Address and endorse--or if he prefers, co-opt--Bob Dole’s proposal for an Education Consumer’s Warranty. This warranty is a set of assurances that parents should receive in exchange for contributing their hard-earned money and entrusting their children to the American public school system. It says that all American children should expect to:

1. Attend a safe school.

2. Be free from educational malpractice at the hands of bad schools, incompetent teachers, timid principals, and intrusive bureaucrats.

3. Find out exactly how well they and their schools are doing (in terms of achievement) in relation to how well they ought to be doing.

4. Learn the three R’s through proven methods.

5. Learn the nation’s history and democratic values and study the classics of Western civilization.

6. Attend a school that is free to innovate and isn’t tied down by federal red tape.

7. Be confident that their high school diploma dignifies a solid education, suitable for college or a good job.

8. Choose the school that is right for them.

9. Know that their tax dollars are reaching the classroom, not being siphoned off into overhead and bureaucracy.

10. Count on being able to arrive at college prepared to do freshman-level work.

The president would pledge that this Education Consumer’s Warranty would guide every education policy he makes. Doing this would be a dramatic way of laying out a new agenda for education in the 21st century.

We’ll soon know whether President Clinton will further empower the producers of education or shift the focus to consumers. A failure to make that shift will not bode well for the kind of fundamental and radical reform that our schools need if they are to produce better results and overcome the achievement problem our students confront.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1997 edition of Education Week as Electioneering on Education: What Comes Next?