For months, several GOP presidential contenders have made a point of denouncing the Clinton administration’s flagship education initiative in an effort to shore up their conservative credentials for New Hampshire voters.
Now, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has taken a different approach.
In several recent high-profile events in the state, Mr. Specter has highlighted his support for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. And his recent proposal to modify the law would specifically benefit New Hampshire districts that are anxious to get access to $1.7 million reserved for them under the program in fiscal 1994 and 1995.
“Good government is good politics,” said Charles Robbins, a spokesman for Mr. Specter, who has positioned himself as a Republican moderate among numerous conservatives.
Goals 2000, which was enacted in March 1994, is not a front-burner campaign issue in the Granite State, which holds the first 1996 presidential primary. But the state is one of only four that have rejected participation in the initiative, which for many conservatives has become symbolic of too much federal involvement in local decisionmaking. And it has become a litmus test of sorts for Republican candidates.
Opposing Goals 2000 “adds to their credentials,” said Charles H. Marsten, a former New Hampshire commissioner of education. “Nearly all of them have staked out the position that we need less government, not more government.”
Supporting GOP Gov. Stephen Merrill’s decision not to participate in Goals 2000 “is just one more example of the position they’re taking,” Mr. Marsten said.
At the same time, Mr. Specter is raising the issue’s profile. “When you have someone in the national spotlight willing to make an issue out of it, it provides the basis for people who felt that way all along to coalesce,” Mr. Marsten said.
Alexander Leads Off
Observers point to former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander’s denunciation of Goals 2000 before the New Hampshire state school board in the spring of 1994 as the first salvo fired in this battle.
Mr. Alexander, who had yet to declare his candidacy at the time, argued that Goals 2000 was not similar to the America 2000 program he touted as President Bush’s education chief--although both initiatives center on efforts to encourage states to set high standards for their schools. (See Education Week, March 30, 1994.)
Last May, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, another GOP hopeful, attacked Goals 2000. And when the state board in June voted 4-2 against participating, most GOP candidates lined up to congratulate Gov. Merrill. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)
When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.--who has been criticized as a deal-cutting pragmatist by more conservative candidates like Mr. Buchanan and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex.--sang Mr. Merrill’s praises, the state’s conservative Manchester Union-Leader newspaper offered him tepid praise for “not backing away” from the controversy.
The issue gave way to other matters until Mr. Specter raised it this fall. He held a Goals 2000 forum in Nashua in early September, where he expressed support for the program and said he wanted New Hampshire school districts to receive the money.
A few days after the Nashua forum, Mr. Specter held a Washington hearing featuring testimony from Ovide Lamontagne, the chairman of the New Hampshire school board. Shortly after that, the appropriations subcommittee Mr. Specter chairs approved a spending bill that includes $310 million for Goals 2000.
In early October, Mr. Specter held meetings and news conferences in New Hampshire to outline legislation designed to amend the program to make it more palatable to conservatives.
Goals 2000 provides grants to states, and through them to districts, to draw up and implement reform plans based on state standards. Mr. Specter’s bill would remove requirements that plans be submitted to federal officials, abolish the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, and allow districts to apply directly for funding. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)
“I’m very concerned about New Hampshire, but this is a problem for the whole country,” Mr. Specter said at a campaign event, according to the Concord Monitor newspaper in the state capital. “This is not a campaign issue. It fits into the national picture, although I’m not oblivious to the fact that if I can help New Hampshire, New Hampshire can help me.”
Mr. Specter’s bill has national implications for two reasons.
First, Virginia, Montana, and Alabama have joined New Hampshire in declining to participate in Goals 2000.
Second, as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Mr. Specter is facing a showdown with House Republicans, who approved a bill that would eliminate funding for the program in this fiscal year. (See related story, page 28.)
Clinton administration officials said they are reviewing Mr. Spec-ter’s Goals 2000 bill and holding conversations with the senator.
But the political longevity of Mr. Specter’s bill--and Goals 2000--is unclear both in Washington and in New Hampshire. “It’s an issue. How much of an issue it will be in the presidential race is hard to say,” said Mr. Marsten.
Gov. Merrill and Mr. Lamontagne could not be reached for comment. But they told New Hampshire reporters they were pleased with Mr. Specter’s action.
One school official who would like to see New Hampshire participate in Goals 2000 said he hopes Mr. Specter’s bill prompts a broader discussion of education in the GOP primary and in the state.
“For me it’s more of a fundamental question,” said Richard Ayers, who serves as the superintendent for the Gilmanton, Gilford, and La- conia school districts. “It’s not just Goals 2000. It’s a question of what priority does education have in New Hampshire and what piece could Goals 2000 play in that.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Education Week as Specter Raises Profile of Goals 2000 in N.H. Primary