Heritage Makes Its Mark In Education Debate

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When Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, strode to a podium at the Heritage Foundation headquarters earlier this year, he didn't plan to talk about the federal budget, foreign affairs, or any of the other policy areas with which the conservative think tank is traditionally associated.

Instead, the House majority whip urged the the audience of 100 or so neatly dressed, mostly young members of the audience to support legislation to reform child-abuse and foster-parenting laws. And he had an underlying message as well: Conservatives should claim a constructive role in such areas as education and children's health, where liberals have usually led the way.

"We have let the liberal paradigm define the debate, and the result is the false stereotyping of conservatives as disinterested in the suffering of this nation's at-risk kids,'' Mr. DeLay declared.

The Heritage Foundation

Mission: "To formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense."
Founded: 1973
Annual operating budget:
$30 million (Funding allotments are broken down as follows: 41 percent of the operating budget is spent on research, 25 percent on educational programs, 18 percent on media and government relations, 13 percent on fund raising, and 3 percent on management.)
Number of employees: 180
Location: 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, DC 20002 www.heritage.org

The Heritage Foundation seems to have taken that message to heart in recent years, as the 26-year-old incubator of conservative thought has expanded its involvement in federal education policy. It now names education as one of its top five priorities and is aggressively seeking to leave its mark on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization that is being considered by Congress this session.

"One of our main thrusts that we've always been interested in is social economics," said Stuart M. Butler, Heritage's vice president for domestic- and economic-policy studies. "Now, we have an enormous opportunity to move the ball forward on education reform."

So far, the Heritage Foundation has emerged as the main voice for some of the smaller conservative groups, leading the fight on issues such as school choice for poor students and increased local control. In recent months, its work has become evident in such headline-grabbing legislation as the Republicans' "Straight A's" and Title I portability measures.

Heritage's foray into federal education issues fills a void at a time when groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the Eagle Forum have become less of a force, some observers say.

Stuart M. Butler, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for domestic- and economic-policy studies, sees "an enormous opportunity to move the ball forward on education reform."
--Benjamin Tice-Smith

"They're certainly having an impact," John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats, said of the Heritage Foundation. "And they're having an impact because they're concentrating on education policy, not socially conservative policy."

Modifying Its Approach

This is the same Heritage Foundation that urged the new GOP majorities to repeal "many of the harmful education programs of the last 30 years" and eliminate the Department of Education within five years in a new members' guide published after Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections. ("G.O.P. Victories Energize Conservative Think Tanks," Dec. 7, 1994.)

Those proposals hit a wall of resistance from Democrats and the public. And while Mr. Butler admits that Heritage would still like to see such radical rethinking of the federal structure, the research organization has modified its stands to resonate more effectively with lawmakers. So far, Heritage officials have caught the ear of many influential Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"We consider Heritage to be very credible,'' said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We certainly do what we can to listen.''

Mr. Klatt added that the committee has an open-door policy and will try to accommodate any education group that requests a meeting. He also noted that several of the committee's bills have not won Heritage's support, including a recent measure that would largely stay the course on Title I policy. The Heritage Foundation had pushed for more extensive changes to allow Title I funding to follow individual students from school to school.

Given the Republicans' narrow majorities in Congress, Heritage has had to dilute some of its more far-reaching aims to fit into a more moderate agenda. And sometimes even those have not succeeded.

In a recent interview, one former aide to Republicans on the House education committee called the Heritage Foundation's views "fickle," saying that the think tank has changed or modified its positions frequently. "Their work has been of mixed quality, regardless of your views,'' said the former staff member, who did not want his name published.

In the 1994 guide for new members of Congress, Heritage not only advised eliminating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but also called on Congress to do away with the direct-lending program for college loans and repeal federal vocational education and job-training programs to allow states and parents greater flexibility in choosing such programs.

Those stances fit with the think tank's mission to keep the federal role in education to a minimum. For instance, instead of increasing college students' debt, Congress should rethink the loan system to provide more incentives to save for education, Mr. Butler said.

"People think conservatives, by definition, are against public education," said Mr. Butler, a native of England and an economist who sends his children to traditional public schools in an affluent Washington neighborhood. But, he added, "people ought not to be trapped in buildings called public schools if they are clearly failing to provide a public education."

Heritage's model of education reform is similar to the federal overhaul of the welfare system. As with the 1996 welfare law, GOP lawmakers have sought to give more flexibility to states in how they spend federal K-12 dollars.

Mr. Butler envisions, for instance, a system of "highly creative public schools," similar to charter schools, that are given authority to choose themes and curricula but still held accountable to state and local standards.

Promoting Flexibility

Heritage this year has largely promoted flexibility in federal regulations and more local control of federal dollars, coupled with heightened accountability.

Heritage this year has largely promoted flexibility in federal regulations and more local control of federal dollars, coupled with heightened accountability. The group has supported a model from the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, that would instill more accountability for federal dollars through performance partnerships with states or local governments.

With the support of the National Governors' Association, Heritage also touted "Ed-Flex" legislation as a way to give states and districts relief from what it sees as overly bureaucratic federal rules. After that legislation passed with much fanfare earlier this year, Heritage teamed up with Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, to craft a proposal they called "Super Ed-Flex." The newer measure, now renamed the Academic Achievement for All Act, or Straight A's, would release states and districts from a wide array of federal rules in exchange for accountability for student performance.

But Straight A's is unlikely to become part of the esea anytime soon. The proposal narrowly passed the House, 213-208, last month, and does not appear to have widespread support among Republicans in the Senate. It is also vehemently opposed by President Clinton.

But the Heritage Foundation may see more influence if the Republicans regain the White House in 2000 and keep control of Congress. Education policy analyst Nina Shokraii Rees volunteers as an adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-running GOP presidential candidate who is campaigning on a platform similar to Heritage's thinking.

And with publicly and privately funded voucher efforts, an increasing number of charter schools, and an array of state accountability measures under way, Mr. Butler is predicting a "radical revolution within public schools" in the coming years.

"If we get the kinds of legislation we are interested in, it will change the relationship between states and the federal government," he said. "That's the kind of objective we have—not whether there's a building here."

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Pages 30, 36

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Heritage Makes Its Mark In Education Debate
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