Self-Styled ‘Education President’ Places His Record Before Voters

By Lynn Olson & Julie A. Miller — February 12, 1992 14 min read
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In declaring himself the “education President” in 1988, George Bush virtually guaranteed education a spot in his 1992 campaign.

But the challenge will be to turn that moniker into an asset--and not a liability--during a year when Mr. Bush has been roundly criticized for his slighting of domestic issues.

“It does raise the ante on this issue,” said Neil Newhouse, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. “It makes it necessary to discuss education, to have a program for it, and to put something on the table.”

As President Bush’s budget proposal for next year made clear, the education agenda that he intends to promote on the stump will carry few surprises.

His package remained essentially the same as last year’s: national standards and testing, “new American schools,” greater flexibility for teachers, and more choice for parents.

“The President has identified four or five areas where he believes the federal government can help,” Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said in an interview last week. “Our intention is to keep on those four or five themes as long as he’s here, until he succeeds.”

“It’s certainly going to be an issue that the Democrats want to try to exploit,” Mr. Newhouse said.

Already, Democratic candidates have signaled their willingness to engage Mr. Bush on the topic.

“I think we need a real education President,” Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas said in a campaign speech last month. “We need more than ‘photo ops’ at schools, and rhetoric, and telling other people what to do .”

The Democrats’ emphasis on the need to create what some have described as a “high skills, high wage, high growth” economy--fueled by a greater government investment in education and training--could also make schooling a contentious partisan issue.

“People believe that if they were better educated, they would be making more money,” said Mark S. Mellman, a Democratic consultant. “And that if the nation as a whole were better educated, we’d be better-off economically.”

“So education is not just a social issue anymore,” he added. “Education is a bedrock economic issue.” Promises Kept?

Mr. Bush’s opponents are likely to portray education as one more domestic arena in which he has made more promises than he has kept.

“He’s a leap-year education President,” chided Tony Podesta, a Democratic political strategist. “He tends to be the education President only in election years.”

As proof, Democrats point to the shrinking proportion of education dollars emanating from Washington and what they view as Mr. Bush’s failure to develop a comprehensive and realistic strategy for meeting the national education goals.

Public-opinion polls indicate that the Democrats’ message could fall on receptive ears. In a Gallup poll conducted last month for USA Today, only 46 percent of respondents said they approve of President Bush’s handling of education issues.

A New York Times/CBS News Poll of 1,281 adults found that 46 percent said a Democratic President would be more likely to improve education, as against 31 percent who cited President Bush.

The President may also face criticism if, as some observers expect, he vetoes several education bills in the next six months because they do not reflect his education agenda.

On the other hand, a veto strategy could also provide an opportunity for Mr. Bush to revive another campaign theme that played well with the public last time around: Congress-bashing.

Just last week, he urged governors to “help me send this message to Congress, to literally join in this revolutionary crusade for American education and to... pass the America 2000 strategy.”

Polls indicate that, while Mr. Bush’s approval ratings have fallen sharply since the end of the Persian Gulf war, the Congress fares even worse. The Times/CBS poll found that 71 percent of the public disapproved of the way the Congress is doing its job.

“I would be disappointed if he didn’t veto a business-as-usual bill,” Mr. Alexander said last week. “And I wouldn’t want to be the Democrat running around the country saying, ‘My education program is to put more of your tax money into more of the Same.’”

Democrats would frame the argument differently, of course, and they would probably be delighted to have a chance to remind voters that the President had vetoed bills to provide block grants for local education reform or more aid for college students.

‘An Excellent Example’

Mr. Alexander depicted Mr. Bush’s role in education as “an excellent example of leadership at home.” “If I were the President,” the Secretary said, “I would use that example.”

Mr. Alexander highlighted the creation of the national education goals, in conjunction with the governors; the launching of America 2000 in some 30 states and 1,000 communities; and the President’s apparent success in shifting the terms of the education debate.

“Now you hear the country talking about a national examination system,” he said. “Now you hear people talking about entirely new, break-the-mold American schools. That was not an agenda item a year ago. Now you hear a tremendous increase in the discussion over giving low- and moderate-income families more choice of schools.”

But not everyone agrees that America 2000 is a smashing success. Critics argue that Mr. Bush’s proposal to create 535 new schools will do little to help existing schools or to spread innovation. It also appears likely that the Congress will provide only limited funding for that proposal and reject other Bush plans outright.

Moreover, while Mr. Alexander has boasted repeatedly about the large number of America 2000 communities, the pace of action in those communities has been relatively slow so far. Undersecretary of Education David T. Kearns said last month that “out of the 1,000, there are probably 188 that at this point have got something going.” A number of participants in America 2000 efforts are also careful to separate their support for grassroots education reform from the specifics of the Administration’s agenda.

Mr. Bush has already indicated that he will take the offensive in promoting his education plan.

Just prior to his State of the Union Address, he visited a child-care center in Catonsville, Md., to propose a $600-million increase in the Head Start program.

He also used a campaign visit tea federal youth-training program in Atlanta last month to announce still-undefined plans for consolidating all federal job-training and vocational-education programs and turning them over to local industry councils to operate.

Serving Poor Families

The President has also tried to signal his support for families and children during tough economic times through a combination of proposals that Democrats have already lambasted as inadequate.

Such proposals include restoring an income-tax deduction for the interest on student loans, increasing the deduction for dependent children, and enabling people to use money from their Individual Retirement Accounts to pay for medical and education expenses.

Mr. Bush also claims to have proposed a “record” investment of over $100 billion for programs serving children in fiscal 1993. And he has announced the creation of a new commission on urban families.

Mr. Bush needs to “demonstrate that his education policy involves more than aiming for economic competitiveness,” said John Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Administration officials recognize that America 2000 could “legitimately be criticized for not addressing the problems of the poor and they need to do more about that,” Mr. Chubb added.

While the President has proposed significant increases for such programs as Head Start and maternal and child-health block grants, however, he has also proposed cuts in other programs, including school lunches, and only modest increases for most education programs.

Most of the $1.6-billion increase Mr. Bush has proposed for discretionary education spending would be devoted to vouchers, other America 2000 efforts, and the research costs of developing national standards and tests. Over all, the President has proposed freezing domestic discretionary spending for five years.

As Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, pointed out during a meeting of the National Governors’ Association hero last week, the President’s fiscal plan would leave the states facing $175 billion in extra spending and taxes “just to keep up with inflation” and would likely result in deep cuts in education and social services.

Signaling Conservatives?

School choice also appears likely to be an important theme in Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign.

The President’s new budget includes a $500-million proposal to help provide education vouchers to low- and middle-income parents to enroll their children in private or public schools.

Secretary Alexander maintained the plan “has nothing to do with politics.” But its introduction just one week after the Senate by a wide margin had rejected a much more modest choice proposal led several observers to speculate that it was more of a campaign tactic than a realistic legislative agenda.

“I suspect that including it in the budget was an effort to signal conservatives that, despite not vetoing legislation, he is still philosophically committed to the choice idea,” said Gary L. Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank.

Political strategists remain uncertain about how much Mr. Bush can gain by highlighting choice on the stump. Although some polls have found that Americans favor giving parents a choice of the schools their children attend, other surveys indicate that respondents oppose spending public money for private schools.

“I have not seen any real good data that explains that issue adequately to voters,” Mr. Newhouse said. “Once people get involved in the details of choice, it becomes much more complicated, and the choice issue loses some support.”

In another appeal to the conservative wing of his party, the President has begun reviving “family values” themes from his 1988 campaign.

In a Jan. 28 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters, for instance, he renewed his call for a constitutional amendment to allow organized prayer in public schools, calling prayer the “ultimate value that sustains America.”

Mr. Bush has done nothing, however, to actually pursue such an amendment since he has been in the White House.

The ‘Education Czar’

One clear advantage for Mr. Bush in 1992 is the strength of his current education team.

It is widely accepted that the President lost much of his early momentum in education by choosing to keep Lauro F. Cavazos as Secretary of Education during the first two years of his Administration.

During that time, education policy emanated from the White House. And the relationship between Education Department officials and Presidential aides was both strained and disjointed.

“I think [President Bush] spun his wheels for a couple of years,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the director of the Educational Excellence Network and an informal consultant to Mr. Alexander. “But I think he’s made up for lost ground very nicely in the last couple of years.”

Governors’ aides, Congressional staff members, and education lobbyists all agreed that Mr. Alexander is now dominant in terms of the Administration’s education policy.

“It’s clear that Lamar Alexander is calling the shots,” a Democratic Senate aide said. “He is the ‘education czar’ as far as the Administration is concerned.”

President Bush’s 1990 education package, for example, was negotiated almost entirely by Mr. Porter and Charles Kolb, another member of the White House’s domestic-policy staff. Now, Mr. Alexander makes frequent appearances on the Hill himself.

These days, other officials in the Education Department “don’t say, ‘We have to check with the White House,’ “a Republican Senate aide noted. “They say, ‘We have to run it by the Secretary.’”

‘Part of the Team’

Another indication of the close ties between the White House and the Education Department--and the growing influence of the department itself--has been Mr. Alexander’s ability to recruit high-level White House employees.

These include Stephen I. Danzansky, a former deputy assistant to the President and director of the office of Cabinet affairs, and now Mr. Alexander’s chief of staff; and Lanny Grfffith, a former special assistant to the President for intergovernmental affairs, who is awaiting confirmation as assistant secretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

Mr. Griffith, who played a key role in helping to negotiate the formation of the National Education Goals Panel with the governors in 1990, has continued to be a vital link between the Administration and state leaders on education issues.

“I think it’s our job to be the President’s primary adviser on education,” Mr. Alexander said. “He thinks of it that way and so does the White House.”

He added that his department and the White House are “all part of the same team.”

Administration sources said Mr. Alexander’s consultative style has apparently done much to smooth the waters between the White House and the department. Although Mr. Porter is not as visible a presence as he had been in education, he still maintains a role as one of two Administration representatives on the National Education Goals Panel.

Observers said last week that they were still not certain what effect recent additions to the White House staff would have on education policy. Samuel K. Skinner, the new chief of staff, has yet to show any interest in education.

Mr. Bauer said that in his conversations with Mr. Skinner, “It has not been clear ... whether this is an area where Skinner or others at the White House would want to reach in, or whether they would be more likely to continue to count on Secretary Alexander, who is obviously very competent.”

Clayton Yeutter, who just came on board as chief of domestic policy at the White House, also has more of a background in trade and economic issues than in education.

“We’re all wondering” what is going on at the White House, one Administration official noted. “There seem to be about 10 layers over there.”

On the Road

Mr. Alexander himself has been on the road about one out of every two days this year, making appearances on behalf of America 2000 states and communities.

And, he said, “I will continue to be on the road a lot, because most of what happens in American education is community by community.”

The Secretary said he will also be making campaign appearances for Mr. Bush, although he did not know how many. “I’ll keep separate my education activities from my political experiences,” he pledged.

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, by contrast, frequently made trips around the country that combined official and political activities.

Even so, some Democrats are already asserting that Mr. Alexander’s non-campaign appearances are tilted toward partisan politics.

After Mr. Alexander spoke at the N.G.A. last week, Governor Romer said: “He came in today and did what? He mentioned the President 30 times. Did he mention the Congress once in his speech? Lamar Alexander was campaigning for the President, and that’s the way the world is.”

Republican Governors who have made a name for themselves in education are also likely to carry Mr. Bush’s message forward. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, who co-chaired the National Council on Education Standards and Testing; John Ashcroft of Missouri, who has made education his chief theme as N.G.A. chairman tiffs year;, and Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, who was instrumental in organizing the education summit between the President and the governors, are all expected to chair Mr. Bush’s re-election campaigns in their states. And at least one of them may play a more prominent national role.

‘More Fertile Ground’?

But it remains to be seen whether education will rise to become a major campaign theme in a year in which the recession has so far been the dominant concern. And several observers cautioned that it may prove difficult for either party to take advantage of what has largely been a bipartisan agenda.

“You don’t pitch a ball that the President is going to hit out of the park,” Mr. Alexander warned. “I mean, Governor Clinton and the President worked together to develop the national education goals.”

“If I were a Democratic candidate for President,” he added, “I would not try to get elected this year by proving that President Bush hadn’t been a good education President. I think I would go on to more fertile ground.”

That view was shared by a number of other observers.

“The public is not wowed by [Mr. Bush’s] performance in education,” Mr. Chubb said. “But on the other hand, I don’t think they view his efforts cynically either.”

The classic political wisdom is that, while voters care about education, they seldom make voting decisions based on that issue.

“if a candidate wants to take on Bush in education, the candidate has to show that the Presidency could make a difference to the public, that Bush has failed as an education President, that it’s important, and that I have a better plan,” said Frank M. Newport, the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll.

“I’m not sure they can do that,” Mr. Newport added. “If I were advising a candidate against Bush, I’m not sure I would tell him to go after education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Self-Styled ‘Education President’ Places His Record Before Voters


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