Fine Line on Schools for Bush, Kerry

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — October 12, 2004 9 min read
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When Sen. John Kerry turned his focus to education at the Democratic National Convention in July, his first remark could just as easily have been uttered by President Bush.

“Our education plan for a strong America sets high standards and demands accountability from parents, teachers, and schools,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in accepting his party’s nomination for president.

There’s no doubt that the two major-party candidates in the hard-fought 2004 presidential contest part company on some education issues. President Bush, for instance, backs private school vouchers. Sen. Kerry wants to see bigger spending increases for schools. But it’s striking how much ground they seem to share on the fundamentals of policy.

See Also

View an interactive comparison of President Bush’s and Sen. Kerry’s education proposals.

“I don’t see big differences between the candidates,” said Jay P. Greene, a researcher at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, a think tank based in New York City. “I think they’re both supportive of testing and accountability. … Kerry has been a little bit less interested in reliance on a single measure. And Kerry has also supported even higher increases in funding. But these seem to me to be differences of degree, not kind.”

One notable contrast is experience.

Education has been one of Mr. Bush’s top priorities, dating back to his previous job as the governor of Texas. When the Republican entered the 2000 presidential race, he trained his sights on transforming federal K-12 policy. He delivered on central elements of his plan with the No Child Left Behind Act, though critics say that Mr. Bush hasn’t made education enough of a budget priority, and that he hasn’t provided much leadership on other education matters. (“‘No Child’ Law Remains at Top of Bush Record,” Sept. 29, 2004.)

Mr. Kerry has been a leader on some major issues since entering the Senate more than 20 years ago—especially in foreign relations—but education isn’t one of them. He has never served on the Senate education committee, and he has only occasionally jumped into the education fray. (“Kerry Record on Education Mostly Liberal,” Feb. 18, 2004.)

With the No Child Left Behind Act and other recent education debates in Congress, he has largely been on the sidelines. But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Kerry from offering a wide-ranging agenda for schools in his bid for the White House.

With the campaign in its final weeks, both candidates have amassed long lists of proposals, targeting such areas as teacher quality and high schools.

Many of those plans seem designed to dovetail with the No Child Left Behind Act, an overhaul of the 39-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the centerpiece of President Bush’s school agenda.

“Under either Bush or Kerry, No Child Left Behind will continue,” said Jonathan Schnur, a former aide to President Clinton and the executive director of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit group in New York City. “The question is, what comes next to help our schools achieve the goals that have been embraced by both sides?”

‘One Size Fits All’

By most accounts, education isn’t a top-tier issue in the campaign, especially compared with the 2000 race. Recent polls show that education isn’t the first thing most Americans will consider when voting, at a time when the country is at war in Iraq, on guard against terrorism, and still worried about the economy.

“It is a very large issue, but it is just one of many,” said Rodney D. Russell, the superintendent of the 1,180-student Bluffton, Ohio, school district, an hour south of Toledo. “So I don’t put all my marbles in what they’re doing strictly on education.”

President Bush

Recently on the campaign trail, President Bush has spent more time than Sen. Kerry on education. In late September, the president hosted three “Focus on Education” events.

When Mr. Bush seeks to set himself apart on school issues, he invokes the No Child Left Behind Act.

“[Sen. Kerry] supported No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Bush said during a Sept. 22 rally in King of Prussia, Pa. “Then, of course, he gets in a tough campaign and starts talking about weakening the accountability standards. That makes no sense to weaken something that’s working.”

Mr. Kerry strongly praised the legislation when it passed in 2001. But in the primaries, he attacked it as a “one size fits all” approach, echoing a refrain of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

In recent months, Mr. Kerry, who has been endorsed by both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, appears to have backed off that rhetoric. (“Departing From Primary-Season Rhetoric, Kerry Softens Criticism Of ‘No Child’ Law,” Aug. 11, 2004.)

One mystery is exactly how—besides vowing to spend more—the Democratic candidate would handle the No Child Left Behind law differently if elected. While earlier in the campaign, his Web site listed plans to rewrite the law’s core language for measuring progress in schools, Sen. Kerry is much vaguer these days beyond suggesting a few administrative adjustments, such as applying retroactively some recent flexibility in federal rules announced by the Department of Education.

The senator “is committed to making the act work better,” which would include common-sense steps that accurately measure whether schools are succeeding, said Robert Gordon, the Kerry campaign’s domestic-policy director. Sen. Kerry “might” pursue legislative fixes, Mr. Gordon said, but the campaign official offered no details.

“We know [Sen. Kerry] voted for No Child Left Behind,” said Sandy Kress, the president’s former top education adviser. “We know he’s been critical within the last year of No Child Left Behind. … But there’s precious little to see what he would do.”

“I don’t think you’re going to see radical changes to the law under either administration,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, who has been informally advising the Kerry campaign. “You will see changes to the law. It needs changes.”

He disputed the idea that Mr. Kerry would weaken the law, saying the “greater risk is that Bush won’t do enough” to make it work.

When Sen. Kerry contrasts himself with President Bush on education, he often turns to the budget. He argues that Mr. Bush hasn’t pursued adequate money for key programs, especially those in the No Child Left Behind Act.

“As president, I will set a new direction,” Mr. Kerry said on Oct. 3 in Cleveland. “We know the answer to closing the achievement gap is both higher expectations and greater resources. You cannot promise to leave no child behind and then leave the money behind.”

He wants to create an education trust fund to pony up an extra $200 billion in federal aid over 10 years for No Child Left Behind Act programs and other priorities. To pay for his plans, Sen. Kerry pledges to undo recent tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year.

President Bush has generally pursued modest increases in Education Department funding, but each year Congress has gone well above his asking price. His latest request was for $57.3 billion in discretionary funding for fiscal 2005, up $1.7 billion, or 3 percent, over fiscal 2004. Congress has not yet completed the fiscal 2005 budget for education.

The White House won’t spell out future plans yet, saying only that history is a good indicator.

“Education is and will continue to be one of [Mr. Bush’s] primary domestic-policy priorities,” said David Dunn, a special assistant to the president.

While increasing money for the Title I program for disadvantaged students is a top administration goal, the president’s most recent request is $7 billion below the level authorized under law.

Republicans argue that the authorized levels are ceilings, not targets, but Sen. Kerry says he would meet those amounts.

Carmel M. Martin, an education expert at the Washington-based Center for American Progress who is independently advising the Kerry campaign, suggests money is a big dividing line.

“We would not be seeing as much pushback on No Child Left Behind if the people on the ground … felt they were getting appropriate levels of funding,” she said.

Critics suggest, though, that Mr. Kerry’s plans aren’t realistic, especially with the hefty price tag expected for his health-care agenda, plus his vow to halve the federal budget deficit in four years.

“Senator Kerry is proposing a lot of new education initiatives that he simply can’t afford,” said John Bailey, the deputy policy director for the Bush campaign.

A Rorschach Test

Sen. Kerry has outlined a host of campaign plans for education. One area that’s especially attracted notice is teacher quality, where he has laid out what appears to be a centrist approach.

Sen. John Kerry

In some respects, that isn’t surprising, as Mr. Kerry has gravitated toward the center of his party on education at times. For example, in early 2001, he joined moderate Senate Democrats in backing a K-12 bill that influenced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Kerry says his teacher plan would “offer teachers more and ask more at the same time.” He wants more mentoring and professional development for teachers. Some of the ideas tread into touchy waters for the teachers’ unions, such as higher pay for teachers in shortage areas and those who improve student performance. He also wants rigorous testing of new teachers and would require states to have “fast, fair procedures” to improve or replace ineffective educators.

Some analysts say Mr. Kerry may not go to the mat for ideas that upset the unions.

“He is less likely to take a risk at the expense of happy … feelings with a major and powerful constituency,” said Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow on education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Frederick R. Hess, the education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said people read what they want into where Mr. Kerry is headed on education.

“He’s kind of a Rorschach test,” Mr. Hess said. “They can pull out different pieces of his record and his statements.”

John L. Tarka, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, says his members don’t agree with all of Mr. Kerry’s plans, but he’s sure the Democrat would be willing to listen.

“He’s told us we would have a seat at the table, and we believe him,” said Mr. Tarka, whose union is an affiliate of the aft.

The Real World

In the K-12 arena, President Bush has especially turned to high schools lately.

“No Child Left Behind clearly affected all the K-12 system, but it was primarily focused on elementary and middle school,” said Mr. Dunn, the Bush aide. “The president and the administration believe that it’s time to extend that success and philosophy to the high school level.”

Mr. Bush would phase in mandated testing each year in grades 9-11. Currently, states must test only once in high school under the federal education law. He also wants a new reading initiative to help struggling middle and high schoolers and expanded Advanced Placement offerings for students from low-income families, among other plans.

Justin Torres, the research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, called the Bush campaign agenda “surprisingly cautious” compared with four years ago.

In any case, campaign promises shouldn’t be confused with reality. There’s always the matter of the 535 lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Even with the Republicans in control of Congress, the president doesn’t get all that he wants. Just recently, the House rejected several budget items that Mr. Bush has trumpeted, such as a $40 million Adjunct Teacher Corps.

His taste—and Sen. Kerry’s—for creating programs may try the patience of some lawmakers, especially in tight fiscal times, and especially if the gop keeps control of both chambers.

“You have to remember,” Mr. Torres said, “that many of the Republicans in Congress [previously] … were sharpening their knives for the demise of the Department of Education.”


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