Most GOP Education Activists Still Sizing Up Field

By Alyson Klein — April 10, 2007 6 min read
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Republican education policy advisers and advocates are divided over where Congress and the next presidential administration should take federal K-12 policy: Some applaud the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act for holding states accountable for student achievement, while others are put off by the major expansion of the federal role in education.

So far, it’s unclear how that debate will play out in the race for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Republican experts on education issues are largely uncommitted at this early stage. Some state policymakers have begun advising one of the candidates, but most are waiting to see the ideas the current candidates put forth or who else gets into the race. Besides the declared contenders, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee may still jump in.

The next president could oversee reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, President Bush’s signature initiative in education, as many observers predict the measure won’t be renewed on schedule this year or before the 2008 election.

Some activists and education policymakers in early primary states say they’re looking for a candidate with strong credentials on perennial Republican education priorities, such as private school vouchers, charter schools, and extra pay for effective teachers.

“I’m a firm believer in choice,” said Barbara K. Cegavske, a Nevada state senator who is vice chairwoman of the state Senate’s panel overseeing education. “I’d like to see more charter schools. I don’t think we really have a shortage of teachers—we have teachers who don’t want to participate in the bureaucracy. I’m looking for people who support that vision.”

Nevada is now scheduled to hold the second caucuses in the nation, on Jan. 19, shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

Eyeing NCLB

Others say they want candidates to call for scrapping the federally driven accountability system at the center of the No Child Left Behind law—but so far, they’re not hearing much support for that idea from the GOP field.

“I’d like to see them say that NCLB is an intrusion in education that they completely repudiate, and dismiss this as a terrible mistake by Republicans past who wanted to give a new president a victory,” said Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from any of them that suggests they would even come close to getting the federal government out of education.”

Mr. McCluskey likes a bill, introduced last month by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and co-sponsored by more than 50 lawmakers, that would allow states to “opt out” of the NCLB law’s accountability requirements. So far, at least one GOP presidential hopeful has signed on to Rep. Hoekstra’s measure: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

But Sen. Brownback is far behind the candidates at the top of early polls: former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. So far, those candidates haven’t proposed scaling back the federal role in education as Rep. Hoekstra’s bill would.

Mr. Brownback’s position on the NCLB law may help him in the Republican race, said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who served in the Department of Education during President Bush’s first term.

“The position that the federal government should get out of education is a terribly unpopular position with the general electorate,” Mr. Petrilli said. “Brownback is a long shot. He can take that risk because he’s going to have enough trouble getting past the primary.”

Policy Team

Many of the top-tier Republican candidates appear focused on burnishing their credentials—and getting out in front of their rivals—on issues that have long been important to GOP education advocates, such as school choice and workforce competitiveness. Some have enlisted advisers to help them craft and sell proposals based on those principles.

Election 2008: Republicans and Education

Most of the candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination haven’t formed detailed policy proposals on K-12 education.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, has been emphasizing the power of using school choice to improve public schools.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has enlisted the chairman of the Florida state board of education, Phillip Handy, and former Arizona schools chief and Education Leaders Council head Lisa Graham Keegan as advisers.

Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, advocated extra pay for mathematics, science, and Advanced Placement teachers, as well as bonuses for effective teachers.

As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee pushed for arts and music to be made mandatory parts of the curriculum in his state.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow states to opt out of the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Tommy G. Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services under President Bush, co-chaired the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, which recommended 75 changes to the law.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a former teacher who was a regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education, has called for limiting federal involvement in education.

SOURCE: Education Week

Mr. Giuliani has been working to show his commitment to school choice, and has attracted at least two well-known choice proponents to his campaign: Clint Bolick, who until recently was the president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, and Nina S. Rees, the former head of the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement under President Bush.

In a speech last month at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, hosted by the Alexandria, Va.-based American Conservative Union, Mr. Giuliani touched only briefly on the NCLB law, calling it a “marginal success,” before giving a lengthy pitch about using the competition created by school choice to improve the pubic school system.

He said that if choice options are expanded, “the public school system will—on its own—solve the problems that we’re now trying to solve from the political process from above,” including, he said, flaws in teacher tenure, lack of accountability, and an absence of incentive pay.

Mr. Bolick, who isn’t yet certain what his role with the Giuliani campaign will be, said he chose to work with the former mayor in part because he believes he’s the candidate best positioned to use the issue of school choice to draw voters away from the Democratic nominee in the general election.

“I think it would be instinctive for him to go into the inner city” to seek out low-income parents who want options for their children, Mr. Bolick said, and “essentially dare Democrats to come up with something better.”

Sen. McCain’s education-policy team, which includes former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan and former Florida state board of education Chairman Phillip Handy, may offer clues to the policies he’ll embrace. Sen. McCain voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, but education issues haven’t been a major focus for him: He’s spent much of his Senate career concentrating on national security and campaign-finance reform.

But in tapping Mr. Handy, Sen. McCain may be signaling that he will consider policies that characterized Florida’s accountability system, including a tiered system for labeling schools. Mr. Handy said the senator continues to support the goals of NCLB, and he sees a role for the federal government in holding states accountable for student learning outcomes.

“I imagine the senator will press for higher standards, and more measurement and more accountability, than is already prescribed by the law. Otherwise, each state might, in order to appear to be successful, drive to lower standards,” Mr. Handy said.

A Governor’s Advantage?

Mr. Romney is hoping to use his record presiding over Massachusetts’s high-performing K-12 system to establish his credentials on education. As governor, he unsuccessfully championed a state plan offering performance-based pay for effective teachers, and higher salaries for those who taught math, science, or Advanced Placement courses.

Mr. Romney’s experience with his state’s schools could give him a boost in discussing education on the stump, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that emphasizes free-market approaches to public policy. Mr. Hess is not yet supporting any candidate.

One former governor helped draw up a detailed blueprint for revising the federal law: Wisconsin’s Tommy G. Thompson, who co-chaired the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind. That panel released a report earlier this year listing 75 recommendations for improving the law, including authorizing parents to sue school districts to enforce.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Most GOP Education Activists Still Sizing Up Field


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