Shift to Center Seen in Bids To Mold President’s Agenda

By Mark Stricherz — November 08, 2000 7 min read
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It was only four years ago that some conservative intellectuals wanted to “zero out” the U.S. Department of Education. The Heritage Foundation was among several think tanks on the right taking that stance, which it included in its Candidates’ Briefing Book in 1996.

Today, no matter which party prevails in this week’s presidential election, it will be hard to find a leading conservative thinker who will be pushing the winner to adopt that policy, which was long a centerpiece of the conservative agenda for education. But then again, few liberal intellectuals this year are calling for particularly drastic changes either.

As policy-research groups of various stripes try to shape the incoming administration’s agenda in various ways, from issuing white papers to holding press conferences, political pragmatism appears to be holding sway. While sharp differences remain between liberals and conservatives, this year the two camps’ convergence around certain centrist themes is more noteworthy, some analysts say.

“There’s still disagreement, but on the larger questions there’s wide agreement—on giving more attention to accountability, working on incentives to do better ... and that continuing the old policies isn’t going to work,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning research organization based at Stanford University.

In that way, education policy mavens are mirroring the two major-party standard-bearers for 2000. Both Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush made education a prominent theme on the campaign trail. But, with the exception of occasional flare-ups of such polarizing issues as school vouchers, the presidential contenders usually argued over the details of education policy rather than the big picture, many observers say.

Election-year jousting aside, of course, it’s not terribly unusual for politicians to stress the common ground they share. After all, they are in the business of crafting governable majorities. Intellectuals, by contrast, are not. Their goal is to promote consistency, and originality, of thought.

But this fall, those lines are blurring. Politics seems to be trumping, or at least taming, ideology.

Open to Influence?

The period between a new president’s election and the inauguration is seen as a time when administrations are likely to be susceptible to influence on specific policies. Asked by Education Week about any plans they had to try to shape the education agenda of the incoming president, few representatives from a dozen think tanks proposed the types of radical changes some have advocated in the recent past.

Take the Heritage Foundation. The Washington-based organization, whose post-election policy tomes are prototypical examples of the genre, plans to issue its 100- to 200-page Mandate for Leadership in December or January.

The book will likely reflect a moderation of some of the foundation’s earlier stances. Not only will it refrain from calls for the federal Department of Education’s demise, but it will also refine its stance on distributing federal education aid as block grants to states, according to Heritage’s senior education policy adviser.

“We don’t endorse block grants in and of themselves,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, echoing the current bipartisan emphasis on accountability. “We want to tie money to results.”

Among the book’s other proposals will be a call for allowing states to transform their public school systems into systems of charter schools. That idea could spell far-reaching change for any states that embraced it, but it’s one that the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed in an October 1999 bill that was backed by five House Democrats.

Ms. Rees also noted that Heritage Foundation scholars have taken advice from a new book, The Keys to a Successful Presidency, which was drawn from forums the think tank held this year and last. One of the book’s chapters, “Turning the President’s Agenda Into Administration Policy,” includes a subchapter titled “Developing Policy for the President.”

Meanwhile, the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank with ties to Democrats, also plans to hew to a relatively centrist line.

On Dec. 4, the organization plans to host a scholarly conference on how to expand the federal role in education, said John F. Jennings, the group’s director and a former top aide to Democrats on the old House Education and Labor Committee.

“The question becomes, ‘How does the federal government help states?’ ” Mr. Jennings said, framing the issue in a way reminiscent of many Republicans. “Maybe it will be different from the ‘60’s, when you had desegregation and disabled kids. The question really becomes how do you bring about quality rather than access.”

Even the Reason Foundation, a libertarian- oriented policy organization based in Los Angeles whose Reason magazine bears the slogan “Free Minds and Free Markets,” plans to push for relatively incremental change.

For example, the group intends to promote the use of private firms to provide federally funded remedial education under the Title I program, said Lisa A. Snell, the director of education and child welfare at the foundation. Already, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a Baltimore-based company, accepts Title I dollars in exchange for tutoring students.

Those on the left are also keeping the discussion on schools within the confines of the mainstream political debate.

Witness the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that receives a quarter of its funding from labor unions. On Oct. 19, the organization hosted a scholarly forum on class-size reduction. In the coming months, it plans to tackle such issues as school funding, teacher salaries, and the effect of class size on student performance, said the group’s vice president, Lawrence R. Mishel.

“The education debate has shifted a lot in recent years,” he said. “There’s much more of an acknowledgment about the federal role, about federal funding.”

Upstaging the Experts

Education observers offered several reasons for the apparent tempering of ideology among some policy groups.

One is that Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore both issued unusually specific education plans, giving intellectuals little room to frame the debate differently.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, suggested that policy experts should not mind being upstaged by the candidates.

“The country should be thrilled that for the first time in memory we have two people running for president who know and care enough about education to have detailed policy proposals,” he said last week. He added that this was “no time for ‘experts’ to get their noses out of joint—but perfectly predictable that they would do so.”

Another factor is that next year’s congressional agenda is expected to feature deliberations on two major existing pieces of education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The ESEA, which accounts for the vast bulk of federal spending on K-12 schooling, is overdue for its reauthorization, which Congress was unable to complete in this election year.

Renewing the ESEA will be the central educational issue for either a Bush or Gore administration, taking the steam out of other ideas, predicted Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington.

With that in mind, the institute—the research arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council—is devoting energy to the ESEA. In a four-page article in its quarterly magazine Blueprint, the group will push for legislation sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and the DLC’s chairman. Among other provisions, the plan would target more money to poor schools and tie ESEA funding to greater accountability.

The PPI, meanwhile, is also part of the move across philosophical lines. Along with Mr. Finn’s conservative-leaning Fordham Foundation, the group is hosting a forum this month on the IDEA.

Another reason for the trend toward pragmatism is next year’s likely political landscape. The president-elect may have a hard time claiming a clear mandate from voters, assuming that the results Nov. 7 were as close as polls suggested. As of last week, analysts were also expecting Congress to emerge from the elections without wide majorities for either party in the House and the Senate.

In addition, the Republican Party is widely perceived as having moved toward the center, much as the Democratic Party did under President Clinton.

Following Mr. Clinton’s election in 1992, one influence on his agenda was a 380-page book titled Mandate for Change published by the Democratic Leadership Council. Among other proposals, it called for federal support for charter schools, arguing that public school districts suffered from “overcentralization and bureaucratic rigidity.” Since then, Mr. Clinton has sought more money for charter schools; this year, for instance, he asked Congress to increase funding for them from roughly $145 million to $175 million.

Finally, what may be influencing the stances of leading think tanks is that they are often headed by people with close ties to practicing politicians.

Look no further than Lynne V. Cheney, the top education adviser for the American Enterprise Institute—and the wife of GOP vice presidential nominee Richard B. Cheney.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Shift to Center Seen in Bids To Mold President’s Agenda


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