GOP Era Wrought Unexpected Changes

By David J. Hoff — December 12, 2006 9 min read
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Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 promising to change dramatically the federal government’s role in K-12 education.

Twelve years later, they have done just that, but not in the way they expected.

The conservatives who took charge of the House in 1995 wanted to reduce federal school spending and shrink the U.S. Department of Education’s influence over local schools, if not abolish the agency altogether.

Instead, Republicans will step out of the majority next month with the department firmly intact, wielding greater power over state and local policy than ever, and with a budget that has risen significantly over the past decade.

“These guys wound up in an incredibly different place than where they began,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “There were a couple of significant decision points where they went in different directions.”

Those turning points, Mr. Hess and other analysts said in recent interviews, came when Republicans at the highest levels realized that, despite their party’s victories in the 1994 midterm elections, the conservative agenda for federal education policy was unpopular with voters. The first happened at the end of the GOP’s first year in control of the House and the Senate, when President Clinton portrayed the Republican agenda as anti-education in a high-profile budget showdown.

Then, in 1996, the GOP presidential nominee, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, lost to Mr. Clinton while promising to dismantle the Education Department and make private school vouchers the centerpiece of federal education policy. Polls showed that voters preferred Mr. Clinton’s education plans to Mr. Dole’s by a wide margin.

“It was very clear that education had grown by ’96 to a top-tier issue,” said Patrick J. McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. “That really is the single wake-up call” that caused Republicans to shift their stance.

And it paved the way for the next Republican presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, to make proposals for a dramatic expansion of the federal government’s role in overseeing states’ academic standards, assessments, and interventions in struggling schools. By the end of 2001, those proposals were adopted with bipartisan support in Congress.

Big Ideas

In 1994, Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent to win simultaneous majorities in the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. They have retained control of both chambers for most of the past 12 years; for 19 months in 2001 and 2002, the Democrats held the Senate by a single vote.

The Republican Congressional 'Revolution' and Education

After 12 years of Republican dominance in Congress, the federal government has more influence over state and local education decisions and spends more money on education than it did in 1994.

Rep. Newt Gingrich unveils the GOP “Contract with America” in 1994.

November 1994: Republicans win simultaneous majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since 1954, setting the stage for what some hope will be revolutionary changes.

May 1995: The House Budget Committee’s long-term budget proposal recommends that the U.S. Department of Education be closed within seven years.

August 1995: The House passes a Republican-sponsored bill that would trim $3.9 billion from the Education Department’s fiscal 1996 budget of $24.6 billion.

November 1995: The Education Department and several other federal agencies close temporarily because Congress and President Clinton haven’t agreed on funding levels for them. The shutdown lasts six days, and is followed by another in December.

April 1996: Congress and President Clinton agree to an appropriations bill providing the Education Department with $24.1 billion for fiscal 1996, a 2 percent decrease from the previous year.

August 1996: The Republican National Convention’s platform calls for the elimination of the Education Department. The GOP nominee, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, repeatedly mentions his support for private school vouchers in his stump speeches.

October 1999: The House passes a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that includes measures to hold states accountable for meeting achievement goals. The Senate never passes it.

August 2000: The Republican National Convention highlights the education plan of its nominee for president, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

December 2001: Congress passes the No Child Left Behind Act with large bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. The bill, which reauthorizes the esea, includes Mr. Bush’s call for annual testing and sets a goal that all students will be proficient by 2014.

September 2004: Congress passes a fiscal 2005 appropriations bill with $38.1 billion for K-12 education. In President Bush’s first term, federal K-12 appropriations grow 39 percent.

November 2006: Democrats win majorities in both houses of Congress. Democrats’ campaign platform emphasizes college affordability but doesn’t mention the No Child Left Behind law.

SOURCE: Education Week

File Photos by AP

When Congress convened in 1995, Republicans were emboldened by their electoral triumph. In the more ideologically driven House, members of the new majority sought to seize the opportunity to scale back the federal presence in K-12 education. Within a month after the elections, the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank, had recommended closing the Education Department and eliminating the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

The Goals 2000 law was the centerpiece of President Clinton’s school agenda. It required states to use money under the program to develop academic standards and tests aligned to the standards’ content. The Heritage Foundation suggested that the program become a block grant, giving states free rein to finance reform efforts they designed on their own.

House leaders pursued much of the Heritage plan. What’s more, they targeted education spending as part of an effort to balance the federal budget.

When President Clinton and Republican leaders failed to reach an agreement to appropriate money for most federal agencies for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, 1995, the government shut down twice in the fall of that year. Mr. Clinton and his aides said they were unwilling to go along with the Republican fiscal policy, usually highlighting the GOP’s plan to cut federal education spending.

“Republicans found themselves on the wrong side of American opinion,” said Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. “Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people thought of Republicans as anti-education.”

The perception only intensified, Mr. Manna and Mr. McGuinn said, when in 1996 Republicans adopted a platform based on many of the same ideas for Mr. Dole’s presidential campaign.

For his book No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005, Mr. McGuinn interviewed Republicans who had attended a meeting to discuss what went wrong in the 1996 election. That meeting included then-Gov. Bush of Texas. One significant conclusion was that voters didn’t like the Republican education agenda.

“That was kind of a nail in the coffin for attempting a small-government strategy [in education] and vouchers as a national strategy,” added Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which is closely aligned with the Bush administration, especially on foreign policy. “That’s when you saw the shift in emphasis, … looking for something that was more saleable and what the American public wanted.”

During Mr. Clinton’s second term, the administration and Republicans in Congress still had philosophical differences on education. Republicans still wanted to create block grants that would give states and districts broader authority in spending federal aid. And Congress twice passed a private-school-voucher program for the District of Columbia. Mr. Clinton vetoed both voucher bills.

During that period, though, Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with nearly unanimous votes and enacted a bipartisan bill to improve reading instruction. Republicans, however, did not approve Mr. Clinton’s plans to pay for 100,000 additional teachers to help reduce class sizes in the early grades. Republicans led the effort to stop Mr. Clinton’s proposal for national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics, and won support from many Democrats.

One of the biggest surprises was that Republicans became advocates of increasing federal K-12 spending, particularly for the IDEA.

“It was very, very important because the mandates were out of kilter,” former Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said in an interview. Mr. Goodling was chairman of the House education committee from 1995 until he retired six years later. “It was getting to the point where teachers in the classroom didn’t have time to teach.”

Every year of Mr. Clinton’s second term, Republicans approved K-12 appropriations that were larger than the ones the president had proposed, said Mr. Manna, who documented the spending patterns in his book School’s In: Federalism and the National Education Agenda.

“That was partly because of the realization that they were getting killed on [the education issue] and they had to figure out a new strategy,” Mr. Manna said in an interview.

Bipartisan Approach

The election of President Bush brought perhaps the most dramatic change in Republicans’ education stance.

In 2000, Mr. Bush campaigned on a plan modeled after Texas’ testing-and-accountability program. The key features were that states would assess students’ knowledge in reading and mathematics every year in grades 3-8, and that schools would be held accountable if their students didn’t make progress toward reaching proficiency. The goal was to ensure every child was proficient in those subjects by 2014.

At their convention in 2000, Republicans dedicated a whole evening to pushing Mr. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” proposal and other policies aimed at helping children. (By contrast, the 1996 GOP convention had little substantive discussion of education.)

Once Mr. Bush took office, he managed to build a bipartisan consensus around his education proposal because he was focused on the accountability measures and the goal that all children become proficient. He set aside several ideas—such as private school choice and block grants of federal programs—that had divided Republicans and Democrats in the past and stalled efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1999.

“He was willing to put them off the table,” said Danica L. Petroshius, who was the chief education adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., when the No Child Left Behind Act, a renewal of the ESEA, was moving through Congress. Sen. Kennedy was chairman of the Senate education committee when Congress passed the bill in 2001.

That gave Democrats an agenda they could endorse and kept many Republican ideas they opposed out of the debate, said Ms. Petroshius, who is now the senior vice president at the Collaborative Communications Group, a Washington consulting firm that works with education groups.

Republicans did insert some of their favorite policy ideas into the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, such as requiring school choice—though only within the public system—for students attending schools failing to make academic progress, and allowing private companies to provide tutoring to students in those schools. Later, the Republican-led Congress created a voucher program for the District of Columbia by attaching it to the annual appropriations bill for the capital city.

In the No Child Left Behind bill, many Republicans objected to the provisions that required states to expand their testing systems to include grade 3-8 and the power it gave the Education Department to oversee the quality of states’ standards and testing systems. Those changes violated the principles of a limited federal role in education that had been the cornerstone of the party’s education philosophy throughout the 1990s.

But most Republicans voted for the bill—which won big, bipartisan majorities—because they wanted to support the party’s president in his first year and in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In 2004, Mr. Bush narrowly won re-election over Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass. While the No Child Left Behind law has drawn criticism, some of it intense, polling data showed that the president maintained popular support for the law and avoided the negative perceptions that Mr. Dole had fostered in the 1996 campaign.

‘Here to Stay’

See Also

Read the related story,

Framing the Debate

With Democrats ready to lead both chambers of Congress starting in January, the achievement goals of the No Child Left Behind Act appear to retain bipartisan support.

President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings say they want the law reauthorized in the upcoming Congress, but they are holding fast to the goal that all students become proficient by 2014, and that schools and districts be held accountable for ensuring students are on track to reach that goal. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Kennedy, who will lead their respective chambers’ education committees, also say that they support the law’s ambitious goals and challenging accountability rules.

Although the education law goes against the principles of the conservatives who dominated Congress in 1995 and those still serving today, it will probably have more staying power than any other of Congress’ K-12 accomplishments under the Republican majority, analysts say.

“We’re not going to return, in the near future, to anything like the pre-No Child Left Behind era,” said Mr. McGuinn of Drew University. “We have national momentum now in education that we have never had before, and I think it’s here to stay.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as GOP Era Wrought Unexpected Changes


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