Symposium Tackles Politics Of Education

By Sean Cavanagh — June 23, 2004 8 min read
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Even though the public is growing more aware of the federal government’s efforts at school improvement, education is unlikely to take center stage during the 2004 presidential campaign, politicians and education policy experts said at a June 22 symposium here.

During the conference for journalists on the politics of education, panelists said the public was likely to see a continuation of arguments over funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. But international issues—such as the situation in Iraq—and the state of the domestic economy will likely overshadow education during the campaign, they said.

Five panel discussions made up the daylong conference sponsored by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media—based at Teachers College, Columbia University—in partnership with Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week and Teacher Magazine.

Though education remains among a handful of high-priority issues for the public, many people are just now growing aware of the efforts under way through the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s signature education initiative. Mr. Bush has claimed the measure as one of his key domestic accomplishments on the campaign trail.

During a panel discussion of polling data, Allan Rivlin, a senior vice president at Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a Washington-based polling firm, said a new survey done for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service showed that 51 percent of adults know about the federal education law—an increase from 27 percent last year.

Though the entire poll results are set to be released the week of June 28, Mr. Rivlin disclosed that, generally, the public is split on support for the law, with 39 percent favoring it and 38 percent seeing it unfavorably.

However, Democrats and Republicans view the No Child Left Behind Act differently, Mr. Rivlin said. Fifty percent of Democrats view the law unfavorably, while 26 percent see it favorably. Thirty-nine percent of independents have an unfavorable view of it, while 33 percent are supportive of it.

But 58 percent of Republicans favor the law, while 24 percent do not like it.

President Bush “has an initiative that people see as a serious effort in this area, which certainly gives the president something to talk about,” Mr. Rivlin said.

Though the No Child Left Behind Act—a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—passed Congress with bipartisan support in late 2001, Republicans and Democrats on one of the symposium panels clashed over funding issues related to the measure.

“Real reforms for real resources—that promise has not been kept,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who sat side by side with the committee’s chairman, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, during the symposium debate. The panel also included Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to President Bush, and Robert Gordon, the policy director for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Mr. Boehner said that appropriations for federal programs typically do not match the authorized levels of funding, and said that complaints over funding have flared because it’s an election year.

“It’s politics—I can deal with it,” he said. But he added that, at the core, “the biggest issue here is not money. ... The issue here is about attitude and commitment.”

Mr. Gordon, however, said that education funding issues are crucial, and argued that the Bush administration had not lived up to its promises. “Their fiscal mismanagement [of education programs] is not a laughing matter,” he said.

‘Definable Event’

One influential lawmaker on education issues, Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said during a separate panel discussion that he would encourage President Bush to campaign actively on his record of support for the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Run hard on what you’ve done in the area of education,” the senator said he would tell the president. “This is the first president to actually put forward an extremely aggressive, definable event to try to improve education for low-income kids—kids who’ve been left behind, generation after generation.”

Another poll discussed at the conference, conducted earlier this year for the Public Education Network and Education Week, found that education was fourth on a list of topics people listed as the most important presidential issues, behind the war in Iraq, the economy, and health care. (“Opposition to School Law Growing, Poll Says,” April 7, 2004.)

Within education circles, the poll ranked early-childhood education, class-size reduction, and teacher pay as the highest concerns, said Celinda C. Lake, the president of Lake Snell Perry & Associates, the Washington polling firm that conducted the survey.

Sen. Gregg—who was a key architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, along with Reps. Boehner and Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass.—acknowledged that the law had drawn criticism from members of both parties, for different reasons. But he argued that the value of the law’s accountability—based provisions for improving education far outweighed that opposition.

“It’s being attacked from the right, by conservatives, for being an intrusion of the federal government into education, which should be locally controlled,” Mr. Gregg said, “and from the left for not being funded at the level the left feels it should be funded at. But neither of those attacks goes after the substance of the purpose” of the law, he argued.

Mr. Gregg, whose symposium panel focused on higher education, said he did not believe Congress was likely to take formal action this year on another potential issue in the 2004 campaign: college affordability. The Higher Education Act, the law that governs federal student-aid programs, expires this year, but the senator said Congress had too little time and too much of a legislative backlog to pass an HEA reauthorization.

“It doesn’t appear to me it’s going to happen before the election,” Mr. Gregg said.

Election Subtheme?

Members of a third panel—comprising federal, state, and local education officials—also did not see education emerging as a central issue in the presidential campaign.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia school district, said the No Child Left Behind Act might mobilize professional organizations, such as teachers’ unions, but not mainstream voters.

But to the extent that President Bush and Sen. Kerry try to use the law for political advantage, “it’s going to be a wash,” said Mr. Vallas, the former chief of the Chicago public schools who made a bid to become Illinois’ governor two years ago, running unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary.

“I just don’t see the public really focusing on this issue,” Mr. Vallas said. “A lot of the things we’re debating as policymakers seem to be somewhat abstract to normal households.”

Even the law’s most controversial provisions, such as its demands that schools make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP—and are labeled as needing improvement when they don’t—did not seem to have galvanized the public so far, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, said during the panel discussion.

Yet as the public becomes more aware that schools in their states and districts had been labeled as needing improvement, a successful candidate could win support among voters by offering viable solutions for how to fix those schools, the governor said.

“If either of the national candidates, or for that matter, state candidates, start talking about meaningful interventions or remediation ... I think you could capture the public’s imagination,” Mr. Warner said. “There’s a lot of folks who know that some of our schools are broken and need to be fixed.”

“Most of the debate so far has been on questions about AYP and less about the fixes for how we’re going to see this remediation take place,” Mr. Warner added. “Neither candidate, to my view at least, has really captured on the national level how we’re going to fix it.”

Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok agreed that education would not be a defining topic in the election “by any stretch.”

But he said it would likely play a role nonetheless, because it has been such a central piece of President Bush’s domestic agenda. By contrast, Sen. Kerry, who voted for the law but has since accused the president of underfunding its implementation, was “running from it,” Mr. Hickok said.

“Given how high a priority it has been for this administration, and because it has become sort of a dinner conversation in so many places, I think it will be an issue,” Mr. Hickok said.

David Shreve, of the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said the anger voiced by many state lawmakers and local school boards over the No Child Left Behind Act’s provisions meant the law wasn’t going away, either.

“The activities that we saw in state legislatures all over the country were way more than [simply] conversations,” Mr. Shreve said during the panel discussion. “There’s a great deal of roiled emotions and feelings about this that have not been settled. That’s not to say it makes it a major political issue, but I think it makes it a subtheme of the election.”

But Steve Farkas, a senior vice president for New York City-based Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public-opinion research group, said during the panel on polling that Republicans have been “missing the boat” by pushing issues like vouchers and privatization, which don’t resonate with the public. On the other side, he said, Democrats should stop putting all their focus on funding.

Rather, he said, voters are more concerned about discipline and respectful behavior in the classroom.

“If someone out there would tap into these issues, I think they’d do very well,” Mr. Farkas said.


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