Bush Leading Republicans In New Direction

By Erik W. Robelen — April 05, 2000 9 min read
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Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s announcement last week that he wants to create a brand-new federal reading program adds yet more evidence that he is not the typical Republican presidential candidate.

Not only would the five-year initiative add about $1 billion a year to the federal budget, it also would dictate to participating states everything from when they should test their students to what kind of curriculum they should use.

That proposal and a separate plan on teacher quality are the latest examples of how far this year’s presumptive GOP nominee has moved away from his party’s stance in 1996, when Republican standard-bearer Bob Dole supported rolling back federal involvement in education.

By contrast, Gov. Bush has made education a central focus of his presidential campaign, laying out a wide range of proposals that would impose new accountability measures on states and school districts while giving them more flexibility in spending federal money. Though his plan is less prescriptive—and much less expensive—than that of his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, the role it maps out for the federal government represents a notable shift from his party’s customary reverence for states’ rights and local control.

“I think we have an education [plan] which is new, and is neither traditional in the ways Republicans think about it, or traditional in the ways Democrats think about it,” said Stephen Goldsmith, Mr. Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser.

He admitted that this approach may not please all Republicans. “There are conservatives who believe the governor has been too bold in his description of the federal role,” said Mr. Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis.

Indeed, earlier in the campaign, several of Mr. Bush’s Republican rivals—including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer—lambasted his approach to education as epitomizing “big government.”

But ever since Gov. Bush effectively wrapped up the nomination last month, Republicans who are willing to criticize his agenda—at least openly—have been increasingly hard to find.

“I think [some on the political right] would prefer not to have this type of seeming activism” on education, but “they’ll cut him a considerable amount of slack,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

A ‘Muscular’ Policy

Several reasons for the GOP’s unified front on education appear likely. One is a natural tendency among party members to rally around a presidential nominee and minimize any disagreements that may have surfaced during the primaries.

And even if some Republicans don’t like everything about Mr. Bush’s platform, they still prefer it to Mr. Gore’s.

“If I were president, it would be quite different ... but I’m a political realist,” said Michael P. Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., and a religious conservative. “I am much more comfortable with Bush than Gore.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, conceded that aspects of Mr. Bush’s plan could be construed as a little heavy-handed.

“It involves a degree of throwing federal weight around,” Mr. Finn said.

But he argued that if the federal government is to continue sending billions of dollars to schools, it is time to demand results. Mr. Bush’s campaign platform is “a very muscular, proactive policy that would use federal power to leverage change, especially for disadvantaged students,” he said.

As Mr. Farris and others note, the political landscape has shifted considerably for Republicans in the past several years. GOP lawmakers in Congress have backed off their calls to cut federal aid to schools and eliminate the federal Department of Education. And while Republicans continue to offer proposals for converting federal programs into block grants, that flexibility is now being tied to the rhetoric of heightened accountability, similar to Mr. Bush’s approach.

Furthermore, recent surveys suggest that Mr. Bush’s message is resonating with the public. A bipartisan poll released last month by Voter.com found that voters think the Texas governor and Mr. Gore are equally capable of addressing education. Political analysts see that as a remarkable finding, since education has long been considered a Democratic issue. (“Election Notebook,” March 29, 2000.)

William A. Galston, an education adviser to the Gore campaign and a former aide to President Clinton, acknowledged that Gov. Bush’s embrace of an active federal role, at least theoretically, represents a dramatic departure from the traditional Republican approach.

“I think this is a welcome but overdue bout with reality,” said Mr. Galston, who is a professor in the University of Maryland’s school of public affairs. But, he argued, “Governor Bush has got to choose between his [proposed $483 billion] tax cut and his education policy.”

He added, “I’m not sure how many [congressional Republicans] have changed their minds about [the federal role], except as a matter of expediency.”

Some Republicans, however, say they are excited to have a candidate who focuses so much attention on educating poor and disadvantaged children.

“The number-one thing that he’s doing that Republicans have never done before is focus federal dollars on real results for poor kids,” said Jim Hirni, who until last month was an education aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

To that end, a core aspect of the governor’s education plan is to provide an exit strategy for children in poor-performing schools that receive aid under the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students. If a failing Title I school did not turn around after three years, students could use their share of the per-pupil federal money to attend another public or private school, or to pay for tutoring.

That proposal may hold the most appeal for conservatives, since it would allow federal funds to be used for school vouchers. It also serves as one of the sharpest contrasts between the two presidential candidates, since Mr. Gore is vehemently opposed to school vouchers.

Family History

In some respects, Republicans shouldn’t be surprised that Mr. Bush is leading their party down a more activist path on education. One could even say that approach runs in his family.

The governor’s father, George Bush, campaigned for the White House in 1988 on a pledge to be the “education president.” Once elected, President Bush called the 1989 summit that led to the adoption of national education goals, and he proposed an America 2000 education agenda that was a forerunner to President Clinton’s Goals 2000. More recently, Gov. Bush’s brother Jeb has made education a priority as the governor of Florida.

The presumptive 2000 nominee himself has a record of actively trying to improve schools in the Lone Star State.

Texas has an aggressive accountability system that is credited with helping to raise student performance, especially for minority students, though the system was largely in place before Mr. Bush was first elected governor in 1994. While in office, he has supported efforts to streamline state requirements placed on schools, and helped create a reading program designed to have all Texas students reading by the 3rd grade. (“Bush Record on Education Defies Labels,” Sept. 22, 1999.)

“What his education platform most represents is his experience and accomplishments in Texas applied at a policy level nationwide,” said Mr. Goldsmith, the governor’s adviser.

Despite Republicans’ at least tacit endorsement of Mr. Bush’s overall education platform, the party may face some challenges when it comes to specifics.

For instance, one pillar of the governor’s accountability effort would be to require states to test all students in grades 3-8 who attend schools receiving Title I aid. Current Title I law says states must test students at least three times, once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-9, and once in grades 10-12. Only about a dozen states—including Texas—actually test their students every year in grades 3-8.

Changing the federal requirement could be a hard sell among Republicans.

“We would have to seriously review that issue,” said a Senate GOP aide, who requested anonymity. “I think that would cause a lot of our members to pause.”

And Mr. Bush’s new reading proposal, aimed at low-income pupils in grades K-2, would place some very specific demands on states wishing to participate that would likely to be hard for flexibility advocates in the Republican ranks to swallow.

Moreover, the $5 billion proposal is striking since many congressional Republicans have argued against creating any new education programs until the federal government meets its commitment to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which would require billions more in federal aid each year. Mr. Bush has so far proposed no funding increase for the IDEA.

The governor is also keeping some distance from congressional Republicans on the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law on K-12 education.

Several other Republican governors, including Jeb Bush of Florida, recently sent letters to Congress endorsing the proposed Academic Achievement for All Act, known as “Straight A’s.” This proposal, a top GOP priority, would allow participating states to convert federal aid under many ESEA programs into a block grant in exchange for agreeing to accountability mandates.

Although the plan appears similar to the Texas governor’s ideas, he has not endorsed—or even publicly discussed—Straight A’s. Some supporters of the plan wish he would, saying that would be a big boon to their efforts to include it in the final ESEA bill. It also would draw a clear contrast with Democrats, who have lined up with President Clinton in opposing it.

And yet, keeping quiet may be a sound campaign strategy for Mr. Bush.

“He doesn’t want to run as an ally of the Republican Congress,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington.

“I think he’s smart,” added a Senate Republican aide. “He’s staying away from the caldron that is Capitol Hill right now.”

Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he believes Mr. Bush’s agenda is consistent with what congressional Republicans are trying to do. Even so, he conceded that the testing requirement for states, for example, would need a closer look.

That serves as a reminder that a campaign platform—even if the candidate is successful—often collides with political reality. It remains to be seen what aspects of Mr. Bush’s agenda he would most actively pursue if elected, and which would win congressional support—especially if Democrats muster a majority in either chamber of Congress next fall.

Still, Mr. Klatt said, “if we had Governor Bush as our president, it would make things tons easier over here” for Republicans.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2000 edition of Education Week as Bush Leading Republicans In New Direction


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