Will the Real Education Candidate Please Stand Up?

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The NEA, long a powerful friend of Democrats, has endorsed 18 Republican congressional candidates this year.

Fege, who is now the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a consulting firm in Washington, is worried by what he sees as a debate being fought in 30-second sound bites.

"I don't see the kind of constructive discussion where officials talk through issues with their electorate," he says. "If we're going to get 21st-century schools, we can't get there with 20th-century politicians."

Meanwhile, some candidates have actually alienated traditional allies with their proposals, while others are making new friends.

Some Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate--including Coverdell, the Georgia incumbent, and U.S. Rep. John Ensign, the challenger in Nevada--have drawn barbs from conservatives for platforms that support federal initiatives on matters such as teacher competency testing and merit pay.

"They're talking about a new federal role at a time when lots of Republicans have talked about scaling back government," says Nina Shokraii Rees, the education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

On the other hand, the NEA, long a powerful friend of Democrats, has endorsed 18 Republican congressional candidates this year, up from just one in the last election cycle. In addition, the union's state affiliates are backing the Republican gubernatorial contenders in Arizona, Illinois, and Kansas.

Come Election Day, of course, what counts is how people act once they step inside a voting booth. Will they, as they have told pollsters, choose candidates based on their education promises?

This year, predicting voter behavior may be tougher than ever. With impeachment talk swirling around President Clinton, analysts can't decide whether voters will punish Democrats for the president's behavior, lash out at Republicans for backing a House Judiciary Committee inquiry, or simply stay away from the polls altogether. Many candidates are just trying to get beyond the allegations of lying under oath and obstruction of justice stemming from the chief executive's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, asserts: "The Lewinsky stuff is everywhere, and candidates are dying out there because they can't get any attention."

In theory, if voters are as interested in education as they say they are, 1998 could be a banner year for Democrats. After all, voters traditionally accord more confidence to Democrats on school issues. Two years ago, 44 percent of 1,329 people surveyed in a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll said Democrats were the party of education, compared with 27 percent who picked Republicans.

Polls show that while Americans like their own children's schools, they are less happy with the public schools in general.

A follow-up poll this year by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup suggested that voters may now be just slightly more willing to give Republicans a chance on school issues. Of the 1,151 people polled this year, 39 percent identified the Democratic Party as the party of education, and 28 percent gave the nod to the GOP. The proportion of respondents saying there was ''no difference'' between the parties was 15 percent in 1996 and 18 percent this year. (The margin of error this year was 4 to 5 percentage points.)

Polls also show, however, that while Americans like their own children's schools, they are less happy with the public schools in general. Because the public has generally linked Democrats to education issues, some analysts say Republicans can link Democrats with the status quo.

"If the [GOP] message can exploit the fact that the public believes schools are not working, it's better for them as candidates," says GOP strategist Pelletier of Direct Campaign Solutions."I'd keep banging on that issue."

Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa and an expert on voting behavior, says that all the talk in the world about schools will do little to shape voter behavior.

"Education may be getting talked about more than ever before," he says, "but in the end, Democrats will put trust in Democrats and Republicans will put trust in Republicans."

Pelletier says that voters who truly consider education their No. 1 priority will cast a vote for the candidate who is most convincing on the subject. These voters, he adds, will research the issue and will not settle for, as he calls them, "one-note songs," or simplistic promises.

"Insofar as most people are one-issue voters who have something that is really important to them, that's how they'll vote," Pelletier says. With obvious displeasure, though, he points out that up to 5 percent of voters will pick the person whose name they recognize from an advertisement or a billboard they saw on their way to the polls.

Democratic consultant Russell says it is harder to get a voter to pick a candidate based on education than it is with an issue like abortion. But, he adds, the rewards can be greater.

"You can take a polarized issue [such as abortion] to 50 voters, and they are yours," he says. "But you can take education positions to the entire universe of voters, and push the swing contingent."

Sometimes, the best way to anticipate the future is to look to the past. A few years ago, candidates weren't talking about schools--they were talking about crime. "Three strikes and you're out" was the campaign-trail battle cry in 1994. Even before then, politicians from George Bush on down were making crime and punishment central campaign themes (although Bush also promised in his winning 1988 campaign to be the "education president").

Levine of Teachers College says: What voters are looking for most is an education platform and a candidate who's ready to help our kids.

It's no coincidence that, in recent years, government spending on prisons has climbed and more laws have been passed to toughen criminal sentences. Between 1987 and 1997, spending on corrections rose from 5 percent of state budgets to 7.1 percent. At the same time, aid to K-12 schools rose from 34.2 percent to 34.9 percent as a share of state budgets, and higher education's share fell from 15.8 percent to 12.9.

But such changes may have done less to curb crime than the aging of male baby boomers in the high-crime group of 17- to 25-year-olds, argues Beth Carter, the national coordinator for the Washington-based Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy. The best law-enforcement policies, such as community-based policing, she adds, have filtered up from local communities.

Advocates of tougher sentencing laws say that such policies have helped lower crime rates nationwide. Carter, however, contends that "in the case of crime issues, the rhetoric that's surrounded the issue hasn't led to more effective policy."

Other fulfilled political promises have their shortcomings as well.

Gerald Arenberg, the spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Miami, says that police departments are struggling with a much-ballyhooed Clinton administration initiative to help communities hire 100,000 new police officers.

The $25,000 in annual federal funding for each officer falls short of the estimated $60,000 it takes annually to keep an officer on staff, Arenberg says. But if local police agencies lay off the new officers when funding expires, they must repay the federal government for all of the funding they have received under the program since it began three years ago.

"Police departments all over are wondering what to do when the money runs out," he adds.

Carter, for one, is elated to see the political focus shift away from crime to education. The political spotlight is just one piece of the puzzle, she says.

"The critical issue is not just the attention, but what it leads to. Focus on issues such as best practices will pay off," she says.

Travis Reindl, a policy analyst for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington is cautiously optimistic about what all the campaign attention will mean for higher education and K-12 schools. "But the deciding factor, especially in higher education, will be to what degree the economy holds up," he says.

Levine of Teachers College has some closing thoughts of his own. Ultimately, he warns, "extreme views and extreme positions could hurt candidates. What voters are looking for most is an education platform and a candidate who's ready to help our kids. That's what voters want to see."

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 26-31

Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Will the Real Education Candidate Please Stand Up?
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