The Next Education President?

By David J. Hoff — November 06, 2007 9 min read
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One year before the 2000 presidential election, the Republican front-runner had explained his education platform in three detailed policy speeches, describing how he would require states to assess student progress annually and hold schools responsible for making improvement.

Eight years before that, a top-tier Democratic candidate, stumping in early primary states, promised to be “a real education president” by building a system of standards and tests to measure schools’ effectiveness.

Both of those candidates—Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton—went on to win the White House and enact significant expansions in federal oversight of K-12 schools. In the combined 15 years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies so far, the federal government has required states to set academic goals for their students and has made schools and districts accountable for meeting those goals.

But with the campaigns for the 2008 presidential nominations in full swing, few of the current candidates have laid out detailed strategies for improving the quality of American schools and increasing the knowledge and skills of the nation’s elementary and secondary students.

So far, most of the 16 Democrats and Republicans who hope to win the presidency a year from now have given general ideas of their education platforms only when asked for them in debates. None has released policy proposals as comprehensive or as specific as those of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush in their initial campaigns.

Several Democrats have highlighted their plans to offer new prekindergarten programs, or expand the existing Head Start program, and to curtail college costs. But only a few have outlined ideas for K-12 schools. Republican candidates, meanwhile, have emphasized their belief in free-market solutions in education and reiterated their commitment to holding schools accountable for performance. But none has issued detailed policy proposals explaining just how school choice and accountability might change under the next administration.

Many political analysts expect education issues to remain a low priority during the primaries and in the general-election campaign. With the public focused on the Iraq war and such pocketbook issues as the cost and availability of health care, the candidates will continue to concentrate on those issues in stump speeches, debates, and in major policy announcements, they predict.

“If you look at what issues matter to people right now,” said Lorraine M. McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “education is not at the top of the list the way it was in the past.”

Even if candidates aren’t ready to offer comprehensive education platforms, the next president will need to address many significant issues, according to education policy experts. For example:

• How should federal policies shape the evolution of the K-12 accountability movement, particularly through the No Child Left Behind Act?

• Will the federal government support efforts to set national academic standards or establish a national test of students’ knowledge and skills?

• Should the federal government expand access to high-quality prekindergarten programs?

• Should there be a wide-scale federal program financing private school choice?

As the campaign edges closer to the stage when votes are cast, candidates will start answering those questions in more detail, suggests Marc Lampkin, the executive director of Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan effort aimed at encouraging the presidential candidates to lay out their plans for K-12 education. The Washington-based effort is financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.

“They know the electorate is starting to look a little deeper at them,” said Mr. Lampkin, a Republican who worked on President Bush’s 2000 campaign and has worked for GOP members of Congress.

Blog: Campaign K-12

For regular updates on education in the presidential election, read our Campaign K-12 blog, written by Education Week staff writer Michele McNeil.

But others believe that school issues will continue to be eclipsed by other concerns.

“It’s hard for education to get a lot of attention in this climate,” said Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington.

What little policy debate over education has occurred so far has focused on prekindergarten and college.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has emerged as the Democratic front-runner, according to national opinion polls, has proposed spending $10 billion a year to expand pre-K programs for 4-year-olds and expand existing tax credits to offset the costs of college tuition so low-income families can take advantage of them.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., wants to provide $5 billion in state grants to double participation in federal Head Start preschool programs and quadruple the number of students in Early Head Start. He, too, would expand tax credits and financial aid to help make college more affordable.

Two other Democrats, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, also have proposed major expansions of the federal role in early-childhood education.

By contrast, the Republican candidates generally haven’t put forward proposals on early education or college aid. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is an exception. He wants to establish a federal program that would pay the tuition costs at in-state colleges and universities for high-performing students. The program would be modeled after one he helped create in Massachusetts.

On the precollegiate issue that has captured the public’s attention—the No Child Left Behind Act—the candidates have had relatively little to say.

The next president could play a decisive role in the future of the law, which will turn 6 in January. No Child Left Behind—a signature domestic-policy accomplishment for President Bush—sets a goal for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. To measure progress, states must test students annually in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Congress is working to reauthorize the law, the latest version of the Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but its efforts have slowed in both the House and the Senate.

Political observers suggest that time is running out for lawmakers to complete the renewal bill before the 2008 elections, meaning that Mr. Bush’s successor may have the opportunity to reshape the law. And even if Congress completes the reauthorization before the next president takes office in January 2009, the new chief executive would have some flexibility in implementing the revised law or could seek changes from Congress.

On the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized the law. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has said repeatedly that he would “scrap it” and start over in federal education policy. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a Republican, has said the law “isn’t working,” a sentiment that has also been expressed by candidates across the political spectrum, including Sen. Clinton, Sen. Biden, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has had a narrow lead among the Republican field in recent national polls.

Despite such criticisms, several candidates have spoken favorably about the process of setting educational standards, using assessments to measure schools’ progress, and holding schools accountable for making progress toward those goals.

When Mr. Edwards released his education plans in September, he said the NCLB law needs a “total overhaul.”

The former senator, who was his party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, promises to improve the quality of tests and to expand the definition of schools’ success to go beyond test scores. He also said he would form teams of experts to help with turning subpar schools around and provide extra pay to reward teachers in those schools. But he would keep the law’s emphasis on accountability.

Likewise, Sen. Dodd would like to expand the number and types of test scores used to make accountability decisions under NCLB. He also advocates changing the rules for the law’s requirement for making tutoring services available to students in underperforming schools so the tutoring helps the students who need it the most.

“They’re identifying specific components of NCLB that need to be addressed,” Ms. Mead of the New American Foundation said of Sen. Dodd and Sen. Edwards.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, is supporting two rather small changes to the law. One would add a grant program to support districts’ teacher-pay experiments and other innovative efforts to improve schools. The other would provide help to the middle schools with the lowest achievement.

But the messages on NCLB and other education issues aren’t reaching voters because of the emphasis on other topics, said one state legislator in Nevada. That state will hold its caucuses on Jan. 19, shortly after the Iowa caucuses, which are currently set to be held Jan. 3, and New Hampshire’s primary, which is traditionally soon after.

“The main thing I hear about No Child Left Behind is … ‘We need more flexibility and more funding,’ ” said state Sen. Dina Titus, the minority leader in the Nevada Senate and a Democratic National Committee member. Ms. Titus also is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Several Republican candidates also appear to be committed to the standards-and-accountability focus of the No Child Left Behind law.

Despite Mr. Thompson’s criticism of the law, he supports the use of test scores as a way to determine school quality.

Some other Republicans have voiced similar support for testing and accountability, including Mr. Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Mr. Giuliani has given NCLB a tepid endorsement, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona has said that he wants to change the law’s provisions on the assessment of students with disabilities.

Other, less-prominent GOP hopefuls—including Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas, and Tom Tancredo of Colorado—would try to dismantle the law and give states the power to decide how fix to their low-performing schools.

The lukewarm stands of the front-running Republicans imply they are unlikely to make major changes to the NCLB law, said Charles M. Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord, N.H.

“When you get down to NCLB, I think what most people expect will happen is that it will neither be fully embraced nor fully abandoned,” said Mr. Arlinghaus, a former executive director of the New Hampshire GOP. “It will be tinkered with, and [tinkering] doesn’t make for a good stump speech.”

The Republicans’ stands demonstrate that NCLB’s emphasis on testing and accountability would remain the center of federal K-12 policy under a new Republican president, said Ms. McDonnell, the UC-Santa Barbara political scientist.

“The horse is out of the barn. Whatever happens, we’re going to have a pretty heavily testing-driven accountability system,” she said. “It’s pretty deeply embedded now in state institutions.”

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as The Next Education President?


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