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Education Opinion

GOP Governors Need to School Uncle Sam on Federal Role in Education

By Rick Hess & Andrew P. Kelly — March 09, 2015 4 min read
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Note: This post is coauthored by Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and resident scholar at AEI.

Historically, governors have a big advantage when running for president. They’ve run things and can point to real accomplishments. No surprise, then, that the roster of Republicans jockeying for 2016 is stacked with governors and former governors: including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal.

Many of these contenders have made it clear that education will be a prominent part of their policy agenda. That makes sense. Education is where Republicans can demonstrate that they’re serious about making sure opportunity extends to every American. Absent a commitment to education, talk of opportunity and social mobility rings hollow. This will be especially true in a 2016 election that will almost surely emphasize middle-class concerns.

But while several of these governors have sparkling resumes when it comes to education, they face a challenge: They must explain to voters how they can simultaneously believe in both the importance of education and in a modest, limited federal role to improve the programs.

There is a clear tension here, especially for those governors who speak most forcefully about their state-level education accomplishments. For instance, Jindal will almost certainly point to his role in creating a statewide voucher program, his pioneering “course choice” legislation, and his support for New Orleans’ impressive charter school sector. Walker will tout how he overcame fierce opposition to prune Wisconsin’s collective bargaining laws, allowing school districts to devote billions of new dollars to classrooms. And Bush has led the vanguard in contemporary school reform, fighting to promote school accountability, expand charter schooling and support digital learning. But it is not immediately clear how any of these lessons translate to a conservative federal education agenda.

In theory, it’s no great trick for a would-be president to reconcile a passion for education, a track record of ambitious state-level reform and a belief that Uncle Sam ought to play a minimal role. But GOP candidates must be prepared to explain to voters how they can insist on the need to reform schooling or promote college affordability—and then argue for a minimalist federal role in making that happen.

Resolving this tension can be particularly difficult for candidates who place education at the center of their opportunity message. Recall that President George W. Bush, for instance, initially proposed a slender 25-page blueprint called “No Child Left Behind.” It was as focused on streamlining federal requirements and what Uncle Sam should stop doing as it was on imposing new tests and federal demands.

However, Bush had to hash out a compromise with Democratic heavyweights like Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who were more inclined to favor a strong federal hand. What resulted was a host of problematic, heavy-handed federal mandates around everything from teacher credentials to school improvement. Having made education reform a cornerstone of his presidency, though, Bush had little inclination to walk away from that negotiating table and little power to argue that the Democrats were going too far.

To be fair, some of the aspiring nominees show signs of having learned this lesson. For instance, Jindal recently argued that he wants to “protect schools from federal meddling,” before calling for raising academic requirements for teachers, evaluating teacher preparation and promoting civic education. Bush has labeled education “the great moral issue of our time,” but has also explained that “It has to be pretty clear that the federal government’s role ought to be to enhance reform at the local and state level, not to impose it.”

The qualifiers issued by Bush and Jindal are a healthy start, but the commitment to a coherent, limited federal role has to be more than lip service. Aspiring candidates need to explain a key fact that liberals willfully ignore: Washington does not run schools, it only writes rules for schools—and those rules often do more to stymie educators than help them. They need to explain that colleges and school systems are too complex and too removed from Washington’s grip for federal decisions to play out as intended, and that well-intentioned federal policies often do more harm than good. Too often, they yield fear-inducing rules, fuel paper-pushing and burdensome reporting requirements, and force local educators to defer to the timetables and judgments of Beltway bureaucrats.

Presidential hopefuls need to offer a clear and coherent view of what they think Washington should do, and what it should not do, when it comes to the nation’s schools, colleges and preschools. They must explain that often the most useful thing federal policymakers can do is clear away rules, red tape and obstacles preventing educators and entrepreneurs from better serving students. They must also explain that the federal government can, and should, promote transparency about spending and student outcomes, but is ill-suited to play a more intrusive role.

More than anything, these would-be nominees need to say—forcefully and unapologetically—that while education reform is central to an opportunity agenda, schools cannot be fixed from Washington. And that they don’t intend to try.

A version of this piece previously ran in US News & World Report.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.