By TRIP GABRIEL | NY Times
Published: October 8, 2011
Representative Michele Bachmann promises to “turn out the lights” at the federal Education Department. Gov. Rick Perry calls it unconstitutional. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, would allow it to live but only as a drastically shrunken agency that mainly gathers statistics.
Even Mitt Romney, who in 2008 ran for president defending No Child Left Behind, the federal law that vastly expanded Washington’s role in public schools, now says, “We need to get the federal government out of education.”
For a generation, there has been loose bipartisan agreement in Washington that the federal government has a necessary role to play in the nation’s 13,600 school districts, primarily by using money to compel states to raise standards.
But the field of Republican presidential candidates has promised to unwind this legacy, arguing that education responsibilities should devolve to states and local districts, which will do a better job than Washington.
It can seem like an eon has passed since George W. Bush aspired to be the “education president.” Mr. Bush’s prized No Child Left Behind law used billions of dollars of federal aid to compel schools to raise student achievement on standardized tests.
President Obama’s own signature education initiative, Race to the Top, similarly used federal money to leverage change that many Republicans had long endorsed — charter schools and teacher evaluations that tied effectiveness in the classroom to tenure.
But now, the quest to sharply shrink government that all the Republican candidates embrace, driven by the fervor of the Tea Party, has brought a sweeping anti-federal government stance to the fore on education, as in many other areas.
The question is whether states and local districts, without Washington’s various carrots and sticks, will continue to raise academic standards and give equal opportunity to traditionally ignored student populations.
“People want government money, they want higher standards, they want greater accountability,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group, who was an education official in the Reagan administration. “None of those things in most places comes from local control.”
So far, the candidates have not been specific about what a drastically reduced federal role would look like. Education has not become a major issue, and when candidates do address it, they tend to paint the Education Department with the same broad brush used to criticize Mr. Obama for what they see as government overreach on health care, Wall Street reform and the environment.
Tom Luna, the elected superintendent of schools in Idaho, said Washington’s oversight of education is different from health care or environmental regulations. The Education Department dispenses a large share of its billions of dollars to states and local districts on the condition that they uphold two pillars of national law — that students who are economically disadvantaged and students who are disabled get extra classroom enrichment.
“If you’re a conservative Republican like I consider myself,” said Mr. Luna, who is also president-elect of the Council of Chief State School Officers, “there has to be accountability for how those dollars are spent. We can’t send them to schools or states with no accountability.”
The change in Republican perspective is most noticeable with Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry, who earlier in their political careers supported No Child Left Behind. That 2002 law required states to show yearly progress in the number of students who were proficient in English and math, although it allowed states to measure proficiency in their own ways. Mr. Perry participated in a news conference heralding federal officials’ approval of the Texas plan for putting the law in place, providing $400 million for the state.
But today he complains of “unfunded mandates” in federal education laws that require Texas, he says, to spend more to meet the rules than it receives in federal dollars. He was one of four governors who refused to compete in Race to the Top, a grant contest that he called “a federal takeover of public schools.”
Margaret Spellings, the education secretary in the latter years of the Bush administration, said that before No Child Left Behind, when federal laws had few strings attached, many states showed little progress raising student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. “We tried that for 40 years,” she said. “The results were far from stellar.”
For his part, Mr. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, which has long had the nation’s top public schools, at first resisted the education law, but he came to embrace it. More recently, he has praised Mr. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, for promoting “school choice” and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
But Mr. Romney is clearly feeling the hot breath of Tea Party anti-federalism. In a debate last month, when Mr. Perry accused him of being a Race to the Top fan, Mr. Romney responded, “I don’t support any particular program that he’s describing.” In fact, Mr. Romney had praised Race to the Top the day before.
Closing the Education Department has long been a talking point of some Republicans, though it was ignored in practice. As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan campaigned to close it in 1980, the year it was created. But he found no Congressional takers and, as president, ended up expanding its budget and ambitions.
It is unclear whether the current field of candidates favors not just shrinking a Washington bureaucracy, but also eliminating the department’s entire $68 billion budget. Most funds support broadly popular programs: classroom enrichment for poor students, local aid for students with disabilities and Pell grants for low-income college students, often the first in their families to go to college.
Presumably not many of the Republican candidates want to zero out all this money. One who appears to is Mrs. Bachmann, who promises “the mother of all repeal bills” to undo education laws dating from the Great Society.
“Over a three-year period,” she explained in August at a rally in South Carolina, “I’d take the money we send to schools and write to superintendents, ‘No more requirements you have to deal with, but over three years you won’t have any money.’ ”
For now, conservative crowds are applauding.
But that argument risks rattling independent and suburban voters in the general election, when Mr. Obama is sure to champion a strong federal role in lifting student achievement and ensuring fairness.
“You can imagine,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “the Republican candidate is saying, ‘Not only do I want to end the Education Department as a bureaucratic monster, but I want to defund programs for needy kids or special-needs kids,’ or ‘I want to let states spend those dollars on other kids.’ That’s a very difficult debate for the Republican candidate.”