Education and the 2004 Presidential Contest
by Frederick M. Hess
Predictably, the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions were largely about terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the economy. Lost amidst the testimonials to John Kerry's wartime service and George W. Bush's steadfast leadership was any serious attention to education or the nation's schools. Though education has been a central issue in recent presidential elections, this year the Democrats and Republicans mostly skipped school. Professor and pundit Larry Sabato has suggested that issues other than the war and the economy "'are just footnotes'" in this year's election. Nonetheless, given the razor-thin margin of the 2000 election and the possibility that this year's contest will play out in similar fashion, even the "footnotes" may prove required reading in 2004. More substantively, what are the implications of the Presidential election for federal education policy?
Historically, Democrats have enjoyed a substantial advantage over the Republicans on education due to their support for education spending and their decades-old alliance with unions and public employees. By the late 1980s, however, Reaganite critiques of liberalism and expensive social programs led many Democrats to seek a more moderate course on domestic policies, including education. In 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton jettisoned the rhetoric of redistribution and called for shared responsibility to expand opportunity while pruning back big government. Clinton attacked Republican President George Bush for not ensuring that every American had the opportunity to succeed. Opinion polls from the fall of 1992 showed that the public favored Clinton over Bush by a 47 to 24 percent margin on the issue of improving public education.
Whereas education had once been a non-issue in federal elections, by 1992 voters were consistently listing it as one of their top five priorities. By 1996, 86 percent reported that the candidates' education positions were extremely or very important in determining their votes. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration's education agenda, including support for charter schools, educational standards, and school uniforms had widened the Democratic advantage on the issue. In 1996, exit polls showed Clinton beating Republican nominee Bob Dole 78 to 16 percent amongst voters who said that education was the most important issue in determining their vote.
In 2000, however, the Republican nominee, Texas governor George W. Bush, successfully neutralized the Democratic advantage on education. The Bush campaign's decision to promote their candidate as an education reformer and the candidate's promise to "leave no child behind" marked a break with the conservative notion that the federal government could not play a constructive role in solving social problems. As governor of Texas, Bush had firmly supported the state's stringent accountability plan as a way to ensure that all children were learning. Bush touted routine state testing coupled with consequences for poor school performance, mounting a rhetorical assault on the "soft bigotry of low expectations." In making education the centerpiece of his "compassionate conservatism," Bush reached out to swing voters concerned that conservatives were oblivious to racial inequality or urban blight.
Bush's record permitted him to thwart criticism of his position and to portray his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, as an agent of the public school establishment. As a result, Bush achieved near-parity with his Democratic opponent on education with 46 percent of likely voters favoring Bush on education and 47 percent favoring Gore in October 2000. Bush's credibility on education proved crucial to his narrow victory, as voters reported that education was the second most important issue that year in determining their Presidential vote.
No Child Left Behind
Shortly after his election, Bush made it clear that he wanted to pass a bipartisan education bill that would bring Texas-style accountability to the nation at large. After thousands of hours of difficult negotiations, President Bush, flanked by high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in early 2002. The law enjoyed broad bipartisan support and is universally regarded as the administration's signature domestic policy initiative.
NCLB represents a remarkable evolution in the federal role. For the first time, it put performance and accountability at the center of federal education policy. The law marks a break with conservative tradition; it represents a massive shift of educational authority from the states to the federal government, and its far-reaching provisions dictate how schooling is delivered at the district and school level. The rhetoric surrounding implementation is also surprisingly un-conservative. For years conservatives have promoted the use of concrete incentives and sanctions to encourage performance, while railing against government programs that lean too heavily on good intentions and expansive spending. In contrast, on the second anniversary of NCLB, President Bush told an audience in Knoxville, Tennessee, "Now the federal government is sending checks, at record amounts, I might add . . . But we're now saying, listen, we trust you. We trust the . . . teachers to accomplish a mission; why don't you just show us that you are."
The Politics of NCLB Implementation
The passage of NCLB seemed to signal the consolidation of the Republican advantage over the Democrats in education. By late 2002, the President's approval rating in education hovered around 60 percent  and 45 percent of likely voters believed that the Republicans could do a better job on education while 44 percent favored the Democrats. As one education journalist points out "the party" surrounding NCLB's passage "[was] a bit premature." Because the law was bipartisan, it featured a number of awkward compromises regarding school accountability, school choice, funding, and federal monitoring of state efforts that have caused implementation headaches and fostered public resentment.
By the summer of 2004, grumbling on the part of some state and local officials had metastasized into an emerging revolt. As of April 2004, 23 states had voiced a formal complaint about No Child Left Behind to the Department of Education. The criticism has come from both sides of the aisle in state legislatures and in the US Congress. Republican legislators in Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah have promoted measures that would allow those states to reject some provisions of NCLB. Vermont has voted to prohibit the use of state funds for NCLB-related programs, while a Pennsylvania district has brought a lawsuit against the state to correct "inequities" in the law.
More recently, a resolution brought by state Democrats in Oklahoma that called on Congress to overhaul the law was shelved in favor of another resolution--championed by a conservative Republican--that favored repealing NCLB entirely. Republican Arlen Specter, the chairman of the education subcommittee of the Senate appropriations committee, asserted in March, "'the pot is definitely boiling on this law. The law is good on standards and accountability, but it clearly needs some modifications, because it's going through growing pains.'" Department of Education officials have traveled to the recalcitrant states seeking to stamp out fires and have launched a coordinated war-room effort for this purpose but have enjoyed mixed success.
Public opinion has begun to mirror the state-level rancor over NCLB. Like most pieces of sweeping compromise legislation, NCLB elicits mixed reactions, with people tending to affirm its goals while expressing concerns about its means. The percentage of people who had heard of NCLB increased from 56 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in early 2004. However, the initially positive public reaction to the law has moderated over time while opposition has grown. From 2003 to 2004, the percentage of voters embracing the law remained roughly constant while the ranks of the critics tripled. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Educational Testing Service found that adults were evenly split on NCLB; 38 percent had an unfavorable view of the law while 39 percent approved of it. The trend was consistent across partisan lines and in key battleground states.
The Bush administration's response to these complaints has been two-pronged. On the one hand, the Department of Education has stuck to its guns in defending NCLB and has highlighted its successes: "'One hundred or so superintendents and a handful of state resolutions . . . hardly qualify as a widespread rebellion,'" an administration spokesperson said in March. "'No one should be surprised, and we certainly aren't, that there is some anxiety about change. It's a sign the law is working.'" Margaret Spellings, one of the President's domestic policy advisors, has pointed out that Georgia has closed the gap between African-American and white students in reading this year, and that Maryland has successfully freed 25 schools from the "in need of improvement" list.
In a bid to ameliorate critics, the Department modified its stance on four of NCLB's most unpopular provisions in late 2003 and early 2004. Secretary of Education Rod Paige pledged to educators that the Department would work to "wring every ounce of flexibility out of the existing language.'" Between December and March, the Department announced changes to the testing requirements for students with disabilities and limited English proficient (LEP) students, amended the highly-qualified teacher mandate by relaxing regulations on rural teachers, teachers of multiple subjects, and science teachers, and relaxed the strict rules governing student participation in testing.
Despite these calculated retreats, Bush has continued to tout NCLB as "the most important federal education reform in history" and promised to extend standards-based accountability to the nation's public high schools. In his brief discussion of education at the convention, the President stated that he would increase program funding for underperforming high school students, would renew emphasis on the teaching of math and science, and would require that all states develop a rigorous high school exit exam. The administration has yet to lay out the details of its high school reform agenda.
NCLB has monopolized the administration's education efforts and has distracted attention from other areas of education policy. Democrats like George Miller (D-CA), a cosponsor of NCLB, have asserted that the inaction can be blamed on the administration. The bipartisan support that passed NCLB has equaled "a wasted opportunity," according to Miller, because the President "essentially exited the field" after its passage. The Higher Education Act is due to expire under the current Congress, but reauthorization has stalled in the House due to a number of technical disputes. In its first term, the administration was forced to confront deep-seated concerns about rising tuition costs. In 2003-04, state spending on colleges decreased for the first time in more than a decade with total state spending for postsecondary education falling 2.1 percent to $60.3 billion in 2003-04. The product of a soft economy and massive state budget deficits, the recent decreases may constitute the single largest cut to higher education spending ever.
The Federal government's major program in higher education is its grant and loan support for college students. The majority of federal aid is directed through Pell Grants, federal aid that is reserved for low-income students who are pursuing an undergraduate degree. While the total amount spent per year on Pell Grants has increased from $8.7 billion in 2001 to $12 billion in 2004, the maximum award has remained capped at $4,050 per student for the last three years.
In his 2004 budget, President Bush proposed an expansion of the Pell program that would give low-income students who were enrolled in a challenging high school curriculum an extra $1,000 in each of their first two years of college. The proposed increase went nowhere in Congress, though a few smaller higher education grant programs received modest increases in funding. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act still before Congress, the 2004 election promises to have great import for higher education.
The Democrats' Challenge
Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry voted for No Child Left Behind in the Senate but on the campaign trail has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for inadequately funding the law and for the way it has implemented the law's accountability provisions. Though Kerry has claimed that he "will hold George Bush accountable for making a mockery of the words Leave No Child Behind," the education plank of the 2004 Democratic platform does not contain any radical revisions or midcourse corrections to the law, though it does propose some controversial teacher quality provisions.
The thrust of the party's education platform is the need to spend more to support pre-school, reduce class size, expand after-school programs, and increase tuition support for college students. In the words of conservative education expert Chester Finn, president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, the platform's education plank "offers something for everybody but nothing in particular." In addition to promoting an America where "every classroom has a great teacher," "every student gets enough personal attention," and every congressional mandate is paid for via an "education trust fund," the platform mounts an attack on the Bush administration's K-12 and higher education record. The document charges that the present administration has under-funded NCLB by $27 billion and has attempted to cut Pell Grants at the same time that the cost of college has risen. Amidst the convention rhetoric, however, the platform provides some atypical language on teacher compensation and dismissal.
In May 2004, John Kerry called for a $9 billion increase in teacher salaries, a large portion of which would go to teachers whose students have improved on standardized tests or those that teach in inner cities or hard to staff subjects. In conjunction, Kerry proposed increased accountability for teachers and education schools, citing the need to remove poor performers from the classroom and improve teacher training by withholding federal funds from underperforming teacher preparation programs. These comments evidently upset the national teacher union leadership, who requested that the nominee refrain from using the term "pay for performance." Kerry has since toned down his teacher quality language; he no longer mentions "pay for performance" and seems to have substituted "removal" for "dismissal."
Despite this softening, the Democrats' platform still addresses increasing the pay of teachers in hard to staff subjects and hard to staff schools, providing "rigorous new incentives and tests for new teachers," and calling for "fast, fair procedures for improving or removing teachers who do not perform on the job." While far from revolutionary, these positions do represent a break with traditional Democratic rhetoric, are at odds with the traditional union stance, and set up potentially intriguing opportunities for bipartisan reform of teacher preparation, compensation, and termination.
John Kerry has also eased his criticism of No Child Left Behind, a shift likely to perturb the teachers unions. Throughout the primaries, Kerry was one of the law's most vociferous critics, promising to "hold George Bush accountable for making a mockery of the words Leave No Child Behind." As Erik Robelen of Education Week has pointed out, Kerry's campaign website originally stated that the candidate sought to "'revise the accountability standards in [the law] to include ways of assessing student performance in addition to testing.'" Recently, however, the campaign has stricken any comments about revising or rewriting the law, instead saying that Kerry is "'committed to making No Child Left Behind work for our children.'"
The Impact of Education on the 2004 Election
To be blunt, the result of the 2004 election will have little to do with either candidate's stance on education. Voters have consistently ranked education a distant fifth when it comes to the most important national issues in 2004. It would be unwise, however, for either candidate to completely discount the issue as an electoral concern; a close election could be decided by any number of ostensibly trivial factors.
After eliminating a persistent Democratic advantage on education in 2000, Bush has again closed a yawning gap between him and John Kerry. While a July poll by the Gallup Organization found that 50 percent of voters favored John Kerry on education and 43 percent favor Bush, more recent polling shows that Bush has regained ground on his opponent. Early September polls have Bush trailing Kerry in education by between one and three points, and some polls show the President opening up a slight lead. Bush's approval rating on education has declined from its high of 65 percent in March of 2001, but late August polls in the run-up to the RNC revealed the president had a 52 percent approval rating on education. While Bush's comeback on education has closely mirrored his increasing approval on other issues, the incumbent may yet be very vulnerable on the issue, particularly among important demographic groups. A nationwide poll in July revealed that 51 percent of registered Hispanic voters thought that Kerry would do a better job on education while just 27 percent thought the same of Bush. Bush's educational profile has suffered since his triumphant passage of NCLB; the candidate who looked as if he might give the Republicans parity or predominance on education in 2001 has lost some of his momentum in the issue heading into election 2004. Whether the president has regained enough ground on the issue to help him in a tight contest, and what a victory by either candidate will actually mean for schools and universities in the next four years, remains to be seen.
1. Larry Sabato quoted in Robelen, "Ed. Issues Take Back Seat at Convention." July 29, 2004. Education Week (Web Only) Available at http://www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=43dems_6web.h23.