School Choice & Charters

Most Conservatives Are Backing the President—for Now

By Erik W. Robelen — February 07, 2001 6 min read
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When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy stepped out of a recent White House meeting and raved about President Bush’s education plan, it raised a provocative question: If an unabashed liberal likes so many elements of the proposal, why aren’t conservatives complaining?

While the plan would dramatically increase states’ and districts’ flexibility in spending federal money, a top priority for many on the political right, it would also require annual tests for students in grades 3-8, create several new programs, and likely raise the federal K-12 budget significantly—activist measures not usually embraced by conservatives.

And though the plan currently would allow federal funds to pay for private school vouchers, Mr. Bush seems open to dropping that provision—a prospect that has to be more pleasing to the veteran Democratic senator from Massachusetts than to the president’s political base.

But so far, conservatives have registered little opposition to the plan, at least publicly.

Some political analysts suggest that’s because conservative lawmakers face pressure to back their new president’s plan, even if certain aspects give them cause for concern.

“The right is going to give Bush considerable leeway,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute and an expert on Congress. “It reflects an evolution in conservative thinking that has been prompted both by ideology and pragmatism.”

He added that Republicans want to ensure that Mr. Bush has some early legislative successes in his administration.

“This is the great paradox of the moment,” Mr. Wittmann said. “Conservatives not only accept the federal role, but are acceding to federal mandates in education.”

So, while conservatives on Capitol Hill may be nervous about some provisions, don’t expect to hear a lot of public pronouncements of that nature, at least for now.

“We have concerns about particular parts of it, and we’re going to work those through,” said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “But until we have our meetings with the administration internally, none of us are going to comment too much publicly.”

He added that the plan is now just a blueprint rather than an actual bill. “Overall, we’re very enthusiastic about what he’s trying to accomplish,” he said. “The question is how best to do it.”

Rep. Bob Schaffer

Yet Mr. Souder and others caution that their enthusiasm could wane if Mr. Bush tries to appease Democrats by dropping his provision that would allow federal aid to be used for education vouchers for students in persistently failing Title I schools.

“I see it as the heart of the package,” said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., who also serves on the education committee. If the voucher provision is removed, he warned, “conservatives are going to have to find some other reason to maintain their enthusiasm for the Bush proposal.”

‘Troubling’ Testing Plan

President Bush unveiled his plan for school improvement just three days after his Jan. 20 inauguration. While no budget figures were attached, Mr. Bush promised during last year’s election campaign to spend substantially more on education: about $25 billion over five years.

Some conservatives are wary of the active federal role he has set out, but say they recognize the current political reality of having a Republican president who supports such a role.

“We’ve always had a position that we don’t believe it’s the federal government’s role to be heavily involved in education,” said Michael D. Bowman, the vice president for government relations at the Washington-based Family Research Council. But he said his group is taking a pragmatic approach, working with the administration to help make the Bush plan as palatable as possible.

One of the thorniest issues for conservatives is how to demand accountability without asserting too much federal control. For the president, accountability in part means testing. He would require states to test students annually in grades 3-8, which is more frequent than most states now do. Though he has made clear that states—not the federal government—would develop those tests, some are nervous.

“It’s troubling,” said Michael Schwartz, the vice president for government relations at the Washington-based Concerned Women for America. He said he worries that a testing mandate could be the first step toward an eventual “nationally dictated curriculum.”

“One of the biggest issues ... is on the testing and how you design annual testing that fulfills the president’s desire for accountability and real measurement without turning that whole responsibility over to the federal government,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., a member of the Senate education committee. “And we’re going to have to work through that.”

“The conservatives are going to have to swallow hard on a lot of aspects of the president’s bill,” argued Derrick A. Max, the director of government affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here, noting not only the proposed testing requirement, but also the emphasis on more spending and the inclusion of a few new federal programs.

School Choice

Mr. Max said the most attractive feature to many conservatives is school choice. Under the Bush plan, if a failing Title I school could not turn around after three years, parents could take a portion of the schools’ federal aid—matched by state money—to pay for tutoring or to attend another school, whether public or private. Since states would have up to three years to set up their annual tests, that three-year clock would not necessarily start ticking right away.

But with Democrats unequivocally opposed to vouchers, Mr. Bush would be in a tough position if he wanted to get his plan intact through the almost evenly divided Congress.

In recent days, he has sent what some view as clear signals that he may back off the voucher element.

In his first Saturday radio address, given on Jan. 27, Mr. Bush said: “There are some honest differences of opinion in Congress about what form these options [for failing schools] should take. I have my own plan, which would help children in persistently failing schools to go to another school, whether public, private, or charter school. Others suggest different approaches, and I am willing to listen.”

“He’s made it very clear he will jettison this in a moment,” Clint Bolick, the director of litigation at the Washington-based Institute for Justice, said of the voucher proposal. “Any argument that his education bill is a true accountability program without vouchers is a joke,” continued Mr. Bolick, whose organization defends voucher programs against legal challenges.

In fact, Mr. Bolick argues that making students wait three years in a failing school is too long. “He started out with a compromise position, and it appears he will even give up on that,” he said.

Of course, school choice is not the only aspect of the Bush plan that conservatives find attractive. The initiative would substantially consolidate federal programs and would include a broader flexibility option than is now available to recipients of federal aid.

“It’s been kind of overlooked, but his ‘charter state’ suggestion ... [is] very similar to ‘Straight A’s’ [legislation proposed last year by Republicans], and I think has great merit,” Sen. Hutchinson said. Under the charter proposal, a state or district could consolidate most funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in return for negotiating a five-year performance agreement with the secretary of education.

In addition, the plan would for the first time, allow parents to save money tax-free in educational savings accounts for K-12 costs; current law covers only higher education expenses. And the amount that parents could put aside would rise dramatically, from $500 to $5,000 a year.

On the other hand, while the plan would consolidate many federal programs, it would also set up some new ones, such as a five-year, $5 billion reading program and an initiative to improve mathematics and science instruction.

Michael G. Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation here, said some conservatives are nervous about the new spending Mr. Bush has promised.

“The ultimate fear is that all the additional money stays in there,” he said, “but [after negotiations] all the accountability is watered down as to be meaningless.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Most Conservatives Are Backing the President—for Now

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