Education Policy a Whipping Boy for GOP Hopefuls

By Stacy Morford

EditedBy

Published: Friday, Sept. 30 2011 5:25 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON – The Republicans running for president may be working to stand out from the pack on some issues, but it already appears that most of the nine current candidates are largely united when it comes to K-12 policy: They want to dramatically shrink the federal role.

Some candidates, including Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, are outspoken in saying they want to see the U.S. Department of Education scrapped.

Others, including the current front-runners, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are more nuanced on some education issues but have pumped up their rhetoric around getting the federal government out of schools.

And nearly every candidate is largely disparaging of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which established a federal system of accountability—and became the centerpiece of GOP President George W. Bush’s domestic legacy.

That near-united stance marks a shift from the 2000 campaign, when analysts say there were only small distinctions between the K-12 policy platforms of then-Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat. President Bush touted his achievement in passing the NCLB law during the 2004 presidential campaign, while, in 2008, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, largely avoided discussing the specifics of the federal role in education.

It’s unclear how the anti-federal stance will play later on in this election cycle, when candidates are likely to move to the center to appeal to moderate and swing voters.

Being against a strong federal role in education is “red meat for the Republican base,” but it may not serve the GOP well in the long term, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has written extensively about the politics of K-12 education.

In 1996, for example, then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the GOP nominee, “adopted a pretty strident right-wing tone on education,” Mr. McGuinn said. That turned out to be a mistake, he said. “People believe in local control, but they also are supportive of a strong national role in K-12 policy. … Calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, it just comes out sounding anti-education.”

But David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works for Republican candidates, said the focus on a leaner federal role largely jibes with current public opinion.

“The country generally tends to lean toward local control,” he said.

The key question that voters want addressed when it comes to K-12, Mr. Winston said, isn’t about the scope of the federal role, but how candidates plan to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for the workforce.

Anti-NCLB

Still, harsh criticism of the NCLB law has some former Bush aides worried about the future of key provisions, such as the focus on the disparities between minority and disadvantaged students and their peers.

“There’s sort of insensitivity to the achievement gap,” said Sandy Kress, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, who served as an education adviser to Mr. Bush as Congress was considering the NCLB law. “I’m troubled by the commitment on that issue. …. A lot more needs to be done, and thoughtful policies are in order.”

Although the Obama administration has just announced a plan to issue waivers from some of the law’s provisions, reauthorization could occur during the next presidential term.

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