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Different Approaches Taken on Education Policy Advice

By Michelle R. Davis & Erik W. Robelen — October 12, 2004 3 min read
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Last spring, as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, was formulating his teacher-quality proposals, his campaign held several meetings with outside education experts.

The experts highlighted recommendations by the Teaching Commission, a high-profile national panel based in New York City, and a new Denver contract between the district and the teachers’ union. Both the commission and the district connected teacher pay to student performance.

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Fine Line on Schools for Bush, Kerry

In May, soon after those consultations, Mr. Kerry unveiled a series of campaign proposals to improve teacher quality. Included was a plan to link teacher pay to student achievement.

As both Sen. Kerry and President Bush strive to win the race for the White House, both have internal and external advisers on education they turn to for strategy and ideas. Mr. Bush’s campaign plans appear to be largely driven by a small inner circle of administration experts, while Mr. Kerry has cast a wider net, soliciting ideas from a loosely knit group of experts dubbed the campaign’s education policy committee.

On the subject of teacher quality, the Kerry campaign “sort of knew where they wanted to go, but wanted to have checks on what they were thinking and collect ideas,” said Carmel M. Martin, the assistant director for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, who is providing policy advice to the Democratic campaign in her spare time.

The 15 or 20 education policy volunteers don’t necessarily formulate campaign positions, but they often act as scouts for ideas and link Kerry staff members to other experts, said Bruce Reed, who served as President Clinton’s chief domestic-policy adviser and is now the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist political organization in Washington.

“They call looking for new ideas, new opportunities to raise an issue, and campaigns always need surrogates—people to reinforce and amplify and explain the campaign’s policy views,” Mr. Reed said.

Others on the Kerry campaign’s volunteer education committee include Kevin J. Sullivan, who was a senior speechwriter for Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley during the Clinton administration, and James Kvaal, who worked on the Senate staff of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the vice presidential nominee, and is now the research scholar at the San Francisco-based Institute for College Access and Success.

But Sen. Kerry’s campaign relies most heavily on internal staff members for education policy. They include national policy director Sarah Bianchi, a campaign veteran who was Vice President Al Gore’s presidential-campaign policy adviser in 2000; Robert Gordon, the campaign’s domestic-policy director, who previously worked as Sen. Edwards’ legislative director in the Senate; and Heather Higginbottom, who worked on Mr. Kerry’s Senate staff before joining his presidential campaign.

In a Vacuum?

The process is different on President Bush’s side because he is the incumbent.

“These proposals have all come up through the formal policy process at the White House,” said David Dunn, a special assistant to the president.

In addition to himself, Mr. Dunn named Margaret Spellings, the president’s domestic-policy adviser, and Secretary of Education Rod Paige as being involved in that process. Federal law allows certain White House and Cabinet officials to engage in political activities while at work.

“That includes discussions with experts across the policy field,” added Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman for Mr. Bush. Both aides declined to provide any further names.

But some Washington insiders say the president’s campaign is not talking to many outside experts about its education ideas.

“The Bush campaign makes policy … in a total vacuum,” said one conservative Washington policy analyst, who asked not to be named. “They have little interest in outside voices. … They just don’t want to hear it, if you don’t say, ‘Absolutely, that’s the best idea.’ ”

Among those on the outside who do have the president’s ear are Sandy Kress, who helped craft the No Child Left Behind Act as a White House education adviser and is now a lawyer in private practice, and Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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