Kerry Aiming For the Center on Education

August 11, 2004 8 min read
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Sen. John Kerry appears headed for a fall presidential campaign in which education will be playing a supporting role, with the Democratic nominee offering the politically popular blend of “reform” and substantial spending increases for schools.

Election 2004

Education was largely overshadowed by other issues, especially national security and the economy, during the four-day Democratic National Convention here last month. A July fund-raising letter signed by Mr. Kerry didn’t even mention education.

Still, the Massachusetts senator has outlined a series of education proposals, putting flesh on the reform bones in some areas, such as his plans for improving teacher quality and graduation rates.

See Also...

Read a related story, “Departing From Primary-Season Rhetoric, Kerry Softens Criticism of ‘No Child’ Law.”

Also, read excerpts from the “Democratic Platform on Education.”

He’s a lot fuzzier, though, on at least one key point: his intentions for adjusting the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy. Indeed, he appears to have largely backed away from the sharp criticisms he leveled at the law in the heat of the Democratic primary season.

The tenor of Mr. Kerry’s education agenda is one that in many ways will please his political base, especially the teachers’ unions, but the plan also appears in a few cases to advance some potentially aggressive changes in policy that could be difficult for those same supporters to swallow.

“Kerry’s agenda includes some significant centrist education reforms, such as on teacher quality, and is coupled with a … more traditional Democratic Party focus on significantly increasing the level of investment and financial resources for our schools,” said Jonathan Schnur, who was an aide to President Clinton and is now the chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit group.

Some observers question, however, whether Mr. Kerry would deliver on the $200 billion in extra education dollars over the next decade that he’s promised.

Mr. Kerry didn’t spend much time on education when he delivered his July 29 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. But he made clear in his remarks that he would seek to raise spending on education and other priorities.

“I will roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals who make over $200,000 a year, so we can invest in health care, education, and job creation,” he said.

“Our education plan for a stronger America sets high standards and demands accountability from parents, teachers, and schools,” he added. “It provides for smaller class sizes and it treats teachers like the professionals they are. And it gives a tax credit to families for each and every year of college.”

Overall, education got relatively short shrift at the convention. Speaker after speaker, especially in the featured slots, seemed more inclined to talk about national security, the economy, or health care.

“There are a lot of other issues crowding education,” Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview here, though he added that his union is working hard to keep the issue on the campaign agenda.

A fund-raising letter Sen. Kerry sent out in July offered several urgent reasons to “help drive George Bush from the White House": reviving the economy, “restoring respect for America around the world,” protecting Medicare and Social Security from “Republican assaults,” and solving America’s health- care crisis. Education, however, didn’t make the cut.

A Kerry campaign aide, who asked not to be named, said the candidate would likely spend several days focused on education this fall.

Edge on Education

Republicans say education will be getting significant airtime at their convention in New York City, scheduled for Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

“Education is going to be a large emphasis, especially on Tuesday night,” said Alison Cogut, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and first lady Laura Bush will be featured speakers then.

President Bush, in outlining his agenda for a second term during a July 31 campaign stop in Pittsburgh, first delved into education.

“We have more to do to make sure our public schools are the centers of excellence so that no child is left behind,” he said.

Mr. Bush, who has made the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act a centerpiece of his domestic agenda, promised to “reform our high schools to make sure the high school diploma means something.” He also touted plans to expand math and science instruction and to ensure wider use of the Internet in classrooms.

A new poll suggests Sen. Kerry may not need to spend a lot of time discussing education in the campaign. The Washington Post/ABC News poll, conducted just after the Democratic convention, gave Mr. Kerry a sizable lead over President Bush on education. Asked who could be better trusted to handle the issue, 52 percent of respondents picked Mr. Kerry and 39 percent Mr. Bush. The survey was based on interviews with 940 voters, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Adding Up the Cost

A core theme of Sen. Kerry’s campaign is “investing” more in education, and he has promised to deliver an extra $200 billion over 10 years for a National Education Trust Fund, an idea he first put forward last November, though he’s gradually added more details.

The money would ensure “full funding” of programs under the No Child Left Behind Act, new spending on early-childhood education, a move onto “a path to fully fund the federal special education law,” the provision of $30 billion for teacher-quality proposals, and extra assistance for college tuition.

But some question whether Mr. Kerry’s spending plans are achievable.

Isabell V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the price tag for his education and health-care plans alone over 10 years would be roughly $1 trillion.

“Scaling back the tax cuts for the wealthy might barely pay for all of that if you were optimistic,” she said, “and it doesn’t do anything to reduce the deficit.” Mr. Kerry has said he would halve the budget deficit over four years.

Yet, Ms. Sawhill said it’s clear that Mr. Kerry would push for more spending on education than President Bush has.

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, suggested that the Democratic candidate’s plans amount to an empty promise.

“Even after the Kerry tax hike on Americans earning more than [$200,0000], he still can’t pay for his education spending promises,” he said.

This past spring, with the nomination already sewed up, Mr. Kerry unveiled education proposals that focused more on providing new money and other support in tandem with increased demands.

The plans that have attracted the most attention deal with teacher quality, entering terrain that gets sensitive for the teachers’ unions, such as higher pay for teachers in shortage areas and financial rewards linked to student performance.

“We need to offer teachers more, and ask more at the same time,” Mr. Kerry told the AFT at its July convention in Washington. “We need to raise pay, starting in the poorest schools and in the subjects where we face the most serious teacher shortages,” he said.

He promised more mentoring and professional development for teachers, and “new rewards” for teachers who gain advanced training or excel in raising student achievement. He also favors testing of new teachers and stronger efforts to dismiss ineffective ones.

“The teacher-quality [proposal] is huge,” said Mr. Schnur, the former Clinton aide. “It reflects a real balance between investment of additional resources to help attract and retain and develop good teachers with some serious demands for reform of the teaching profession.”

‘He Listens to Me’

Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, was cautious in discussing the portions of Mr. Kerry’s plans that “ask more” of teachers, suggesting his union’s stance would hinge on how those plans were fleshed out.

“The devil would be in the details,” he said in an interview.

On the issue of rewards for increasing student achievement, Mr. Weaver emphasized that such rewards don’t necessarily mean money.

“It could be additional prep time,” he said. “It could be some kind of professional- development activity.”

But the Kerry campaign appears to be talking mainly about money, saying on its Web site that the plan would “offer increased pay and responsibility to teachers who excel, using measures that include improvements in student achievement.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan, said in an interview that he doesn’t believe Mr. Kerry would ultimately pursue proposals that would upset the unions.

“He was brought in for career counseling by the NEA, as I understand it,” soon after announcing his teacher plans in May, said Mr. Finn, who added that he has since discerned a softer tone to Mr. Kerry’s rhetoric on the touchy issues. At press time last week, an NEA spokeswoman was unable to provide details on meetings between Mr. Kerry and union officials.

Mr. Finn, in an opinion piece that ran in his foundation’s electronic newsletter, said the bottom line, as he sees it, is that the teachers’ unions “remain in charge” of the Democrats’ education policies.

“Hence the ticket’s position boils down to this,” he said. “‘We sort of agree with Bush about what’s wrong with American education and yes, we voted for his bill, though we now have misgivings, but we promise to spend buckets more than he will and we’ll make sure that education reform doesn’t upset educators.’”

Julie Blaha, a Minnesota teacher and delegate to the Democratic convention, sees her party’s candidate much differently. She doesn’t talk about unions driving policy, but rather of a candidate who lends an ear to those on the “front lines” in schools.

Asked whether Mr. Kerry’s education proposals “speak” to her, Ms. Blaha replied: “I think even more importantly, he listens to me on education.”

“I believe he’s listening to teachers,” she said, “and I don’t feel that from George Bush.”


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