Making sense of the GOP field & education

Peter Holden

Article Highlights

  • Education is not going to be a make-or-break issue in #2012

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  • If a candidate won't zero out all federal aid, will they push to turn everything into a giant block grant?

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  • Gaping philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans is likely to be fought in education as elsewhere

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Press interest has been picking up the last couple weeks when it comes to the GOP contenders and education. Here are seven keys to keep in mind when making sense of what the Republican field is (and isn't) saying on that score.

First, most of those opining on the edu-thinking of the GOP candidates are committed Democrats (if only because the edu-universe is disproportionately Democratic), so the frequently snide tone of the commentary ought to be interpreted accordingly. This isn't to deny the smarts or insight of media go-to's like Jack Jennings or Charlie Barone. But keep in mind that they're veteran, professional Democrats, and are hardly neutral parties when it comes to weighing in on what GOP candidates are saying. Yet, frequently these guys are quoted as seemingly neutral experts, rather than partisan experts.

Second, education is not going to be a make-or-break issue in 2012. Since its emergence on the national agenda in the late 1980s, education has tended to fare best when the economy is good and the international situation is calm. In 2012, education, at best, is likely to be competing for fourth in issue attention--behind the economy/jobs, health care reform, and foreign affairs.

"If a candidate won't zero out all federal aid, will they push to turn everything into a giant block grant?" -- Frederick Hess

Third, that said, education may matter more symbolically than it will substantively--because it neatly illustrates central themes for both the President and his challengers. For the President, education (especially post-Solyndra) is the most appealing example that he's a centrist, forward-looking kind of Democrat. He can point to Race to the Top, i3, NCLB waivers, and his community college initiative to argue that he's taking bold, bipartisan steps to invest in the future. For the GOP candidates, education--especially after the American Jobs Act and the administration's NCLB waiver ploy--is one more telling example of Obama-style overreach (for more, see my post from July on Obama & Schooling: Two Fact Patterns). Republicans add conditional NCLB waivers, federal involvement in the Common Core, and an outsized federal edu-role to the familiar litany of the stimulus, Obamacare, auto bailouts, cash-for-clunkers, Frank-Dodd, cap-and-trade, NLRB v. Boeing, and so on.

Fourth, this stark contrast exists even though most of the GOP field seemingly agrees with the President, in principle, on charter schooling, overhauling tenure, promoting real evaluation, and tackling persistently lousy schools. Heck, the President's gotten big-time plaudits from the Wall Street Journal on this stuff. But conservatives are torn between sympathy for his aims and a resistance to doing these things from Washington. The big risk for reformers is that some of their favored projects, including Common Core and perhaps school turnarounds, may get caught up in partisan politics. That would turn formerly bipartisan efforts into more partisan ones, hindering efforts to build sustainable, broad support.

Fifth, GOP concerns about Obama's overreaching also mean that candidates need to tread gingerly when it comes to issues like teacher tenure. When saying things that reflect support for administration aims, GOP candidates need to be real careful--at least during primary season--not to suggest that they intend to legislate from Washington. This means it's tough for Romney, Perry, or Huntsman to talk too much or too forcefully about what they've done at their state or might like to see happen, because of the risk that it'll sound to GOP primary voters like they're sketching out a big new federal agenda (this was a real killer for Pawlenty, who had a terrific state edu-record but couldn't say much about it). In other words, Republican antipathy for the ambitious education stylings of Bush and Obama has made it dangerous for GOP Presidential contenders to take up the mantle.

Sixth, reporters have yet to push GOP candidates to explain what they actually mean when they say that they intend to abolish the Department of Education or get the feds out of schooling. After all, abolishing the Department wouldn't itself end any federal education programs. That would require actually deciding to zero out students loans, Pell grants, Title I, IDEA funding, and so on. That's the test. Will even a Bachmann or a Perry call for abolishing student lending or IDEA? After all, these are popular programs with influential, sympathetic, middle-class constituencies. But the media gets so distracted by bold promises to "turn out the lights" at ED that no one pushes any further. If a candidate won't zero out all federal aid, will they push to turn everything into a giant block grant? (Doing so requires that they be willing to say "yes" when asked, "Are you willing to gut existing assurances that federal Title I aid and IDEA will help at-risk children or those with special needs?" and I have trouble seeing even Bachmann or Perry actually going there.) If you're not zeroing out everything or calling for pure block grants, you still have categorical programs and the attendant rules, regs, bureaucrats, and the rest. In other words, you wind up with an incremental downsizing. Is that what we're really talking about?

Finally, let's keep in mind the difference between conservatives and progressives when it comes to federal policy. Progressives see problems, seek the "best" response, and feel impelled to act. Concerns about statutory barriers or unintended consequences strike progressives as so much excuse-mongering. Conservatives tend to focus on all the problems with trying to identify and adopt big federal solutions, envisioning all the perverse incentives that loom and all that can go wrong--even if it means that problems will go unaddressed. That gaping philosophical divide is likely to be the ground on which 2012 is fought, in education as elsewhere. Making sense of it, though, will be a lot easier if we're hearing from Republicans as well as Democrats, and not just Dems explaining what they think Republicans mean.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI.

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