Four years ago, Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination were virtually unanimous in their position on the U.S. Department of Education: Get rid of it.
That stance fairly well summed up, at least symbolically, their assessment of the federal government’s role in education. It also set a tone that many argue did little to help the party’s reputation on school issues.
But as the 2000 presidential campaign builds steam, the rhetoric sounds markedly different. Today, talk of eliminating the department has practically disappeared from the Republican lexicon, including that of most of the party’s six presidential candidates.
In fact, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination, has made clear that the question for him is not so much whether there is a federal role in schools, but how that role can be redefined.
“Here you have for the first time in my memory a Republican candidate who acknowledges and talks about a federal role in education,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George Bush, the candidate’s father.
That kind of talk, meanwhile, softens the contrast between Mr. Bush and the two Democratic candidates for president, Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
That is not to say that substantive differences do not exist within the current presidential field. But with the crucial Iowa caucuses set for Jan. 24 and the New Hampshire primary for Feb. 1, the challenge for this season’s crop of candidates seems to be differentiating their messages and styles on education issues.
Mr. Gore has made education a centerpiece of his campaign, articulating an array of fairly detailed proposals. He would spend an additional $115 billion over 10 years for universal preschool, subsidized teacher salaries in impoverished areas, smaller schools and class sizes, and the creation of a national teacher corps to attract new teachers to high-need schools, among other purposes.
As for Mr. Bradley, after what many deemed a sluggish start on his education agenda, the former senator has in recent weeks started talking more frequently about the subject. He has proposed some new education programs, but on a more modest scale than Mr. Gore’s plans.
For example, Mr. Bradley would spend $2 billion a year on a plan to support early-childhood education, $1.3 billion a year on an effort to encourage new teachers to teach in poor urban and rural areas, and $400 million annually to improve access to community colleges.
The Reform Party’s most prominent candidate so far, the television commentator and former Republican White House aide Patrick J. Buchanan, has limited his comments on education mostly to advocacy of school vouchers and voluntary school prayer.
As it did in 1996, education is clearly emerging as a prominent concern in the 2000 campaign.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in December found that a presidential candidate’s plans for public education were among the top priorities for voters, and the issue was ranked “extremely important” by 56 percent of those surveyed. By comparison, experience in dealing with foreign-policy issues, for example, was “extremely important” to 42 percent.
“Education has risen steadily in recent years as a public issue, and is now at or close to the top of the American people’s domestic-policy concerns,” said William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland’s school of public affairs and a former aide to President Clinton who is now advising the Gore campaign.
Mr. Galston argues that the vice president’s agenda for education clearly eclipses Mr. Bradley’s and demonstrates a greater commitment to education. “It is more extensive, more comprehensive, more expensive than the Bradley approach ... and it goes into considerably more detail,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Bradley sought last week to distinguish his philosophy from Mr. Gore’s.
“Al Gore and I have very different views on education,” he said in a Jan. 10 statement from Iowa. “I believe we need to improve education at every stage in a person’s life, from birth to adulthood. I also think a student’s success depends on more than just a bunch of education programs from Washington. ...
“You can either look at education in terms of where people live their lives,” he said, “or you can think of it as a box called education, unrelated to everything else.”
Mr. Bradley has argued that education is infused in other proposals he has put forward, such as those on child poverty and working families.
Vice President Gore’s platform appears to have resonated more powerfully with at least some of the institutional education powers, notably the nation’s two main teachers’ unions, which have endorsed him.
But Lamar Alexander, who abandoned his bid for the GOP nomination last August and has since endorsed Mr. Bush, said that Mr. Gore’s approach is far too intrusive. “Gore is sure he knows what is best for local schools,” said Mr. Alexander, who was secretary of education under President Bush.
On the Republican side, Mr. Bush has been the most aggressive in reaching out to a broad audience on education. He has a clear record in Texas that has emphasized statewide standards, assessments, and accountability for results. He has talked extensively about the importance of helping public schools.
“He thinks there’s a more significant [federal] role in making sure the public schools are improved,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester in New York and an adviser to the Bush campaign.
“He’s a governor who’s run public schools,” Mr. Hanushek continued. “He wants more [school] choice ... but that’s something different from [saying] the obvious, only answer is vouchers.”
A cornerstone of the governor’s approach is heightening federal demands on school districts and states to improve student achievement, while consolidating many K-12 programs into five funding categories and offering enhanced flexibility in spending federal dollars. Gov. Bush, however, has not proposed any spending increases.
Other Republican candidates have also talked about education, but not nearly as much, or in as great detail, as Mr. Bush.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, considered Mr. Bush’s main GOP rival, has outlined several proposals for education. The largest is an experimental voucher program that would be funded at $5.4 billion over three years. His campaign is also drafting a proposal to provide about $1 billion annually in tax breaks to teachers rated “excellent” by states.
Mr. Bush’s education agenda, meanwhile, has riled some of his more conservative rivals, including Gary L. Bauer, a former undersecretary of education in the Reagan administration.
“The Bush move to the squishy center is seen most clearly in his embrace of big-government, Washington-knows-best nostrums on education,” Mr. Bauer wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last October.
Some educators say they are pleased, though, that most of the GOP discussion of public education and educators has shifted from the critical remarks of some previous campaigns.
“I don’t hear at all the education-bashing,” said Philip D. Bell, the superintendent of the Hudson and Litchfield school districts in New Hampshire, the state that, along with Iowa, has been most immersed in the campaign so far. Eric A. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Iowa’s 32,000-student Des Moines public schools, added that he was encouraged that education was getting so much attention. For him, what comes first, though, is a candidate’s personal commitment to the issue.
As he put it: “Does this really seem to be an issue that’s near and dear to a candidate’s heart?”
The debate over publicly funded tuition vouchers, traditionally a dividing line between Democrats and Republicans, is still a defining issue in this year’s campaign. But it’s a little more complicated than before.
For one thing, Mr. Bradley, who retired from the Senate in 1997 after three terms, voted at least four times during the 1990s in favor of experimental-voucher proposals, such as one in 1994 that was aimed at low-income families.
Vice President Gore has put the former senator on the defensive in recent months for those votes, and has stressed that he himself opposed every voucher proposal during his 16 years in Congress.
Mr. Bradley has stated that he does not believe vouchers are the answer to public education’s ills.
In the GOP, vouchers are a staple of most of the candidates’ education platforms.
“Real school choice means public schools and private schools,” Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes said in a September speech to the National Baptist Convention. “Charter schools and Baptist schools. Home schools and parochial schools.”
Gov. Bush, however, has been more cautious in his comments on school choice. He promotes public charter schools vigorously, but he has linked his own voucher proposal to the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students.
Under Mr. Bush’s plan, if a school receiving Title I dollars was identified as failing and did not turn around its performance after three years, the district would be required to let parents use that Title I money, coupled with state money, to move their children to other public or private schools.
“This turns the voucher issue off into a different direction,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It places the other side in the place of arguing that kids should be forced to go to failing schools. ... That really is a hard argument to defend.”
Still, the Texas governor’s approach has come under fire from fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. Mr. Forbes and Sen. McCain, for example, argue that three years is too long for a child to stay in a failing school; Vice President Gore insists that vouchers would launch a “downward spiral” by draining money from the public system.
Mr. Bell, the superintendent from New Hampshire, finds the Democrats’ support for raising education funding more appealing than Mr. Bush’s plans.
"[Gov. Bush] has emphasized charter schools, failing schools, and parental choice,” he said. “That doesn’t resonate as well with public school folks.”
Note: Mr. Buchanan is currently the leading candidate for the Reform Party presidential nomination. The party will choose its candidate by a ballot mailed out this July to members, those who signed petitions in support of placing a Reform Party candidate on a state ballot, or anyone else who requests one. The convention is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 10-13; a two-thirds vote of the 599 delegates could overturn the ballot result.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Who Stands for What On Education?