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It's the Education, Stupid

DR says: Thank you, Washington Post, for putting above the fold what DR has been saying for a long time: Bush and the Republicans are acutely vulnerable on the education issue and it’s likely to be a liability for them in 2004.

A brief recap. Democrats have historically dominated the education issue but Bush narrowed the gap during the 2000 campaign with his compassionate conservative rhetoric and his promise to improve education by raising standards. With the bipartisan passage of the No Child Left Behind education reform act on January 8, 2002, the gap was essentially erased.

But ever since then the gap has re-opened in the Democrats’ favor. Republican pollster David Winston pegs the Democrats’ current advantage at 14 points, consistent with the findings of recent public polls.

The reason for this is simple. The stringent standards of the No Child Left Behind Act were not–and still haven’t been–matched by a commitment of resources to help lagging schools meet those standards. Consequently, while massive numbers of schools–half or more in some states–are now in danger of being characterized as “failing” and suffering penalties as a result, there is no money available from the federal level to help them. Nor, given most states’ fiscal situations, is it really feasible for states to provide substantial new assistance to help these schools meet standards. And the latest round of Bush tax cuts has just made this situation worse, since many states peg their tax rates to the federal rates and therefore will be bringing in even less revenue than before. Finally, under the provisions of the new law, standards are supposed to become more stringent with every year, which will almost certainly increase the number of schools subject to sanction.

It is this dreadful situation that has led to public disenchantment with the GOP’s educational approach. High standards + no money = big problem. The Democrats have a golden opportunity to highlight this contradiction, making the point over and over again that the GOP has imposed this mandate on the states, but chose to fund tax cuts for the rich instead of the schools that are supposed to leave no child behind. And the Republicans dare to criticize the Democrats for promoting “unfunded mandates”!

As the article points out, the high standards vs. no money problem is particularly acute in some key swing states like West Virginia. Thus, not only is the education issue of great importance to various swing voter groups (for example, married women), but it also has the potential to directly boost Democratic electoral vote totals in 2004.

If all this is true, why have Democratic presidential candidates been so reticent about this issue? Maybe they’re afraid to seem opposed to standards. Maybe they think the economy and health care are so important, they don’t need to bother with education.

Who knows? All DR knows is they’re wrong not to pounce on this issue and push it as hard as they can–not only the shortcomings and contradictions of the No Child Left Behind Act, but also the profound unresponsiveness of the GOP to the clear need to modernize our educational system. Why are schools still on the agricultural calendar, with school buildings mostly closed outside of the short school day, when working parents and the challenges of the information economy obviously demand so much more? Why isn’t preschool universally available to all families? Why does the salary structure for teachers still reflect the days when educated women couldn’t do much else other than be teachers, when we literally needs millions of high quality, high skill people to enter the teaching profession? The Republicans have no good answers to these questions; Democrats should.


Hey DR,

As the Note poted out today, one candidate has been blast NCLB for months now, to good effect: Howard Dean. I know he's not your favorite candidate, but you should give credit where credit is do.

By the way, I love the site and the book...keep up the good work!

Jason Best

Thanks, DR, for such good writing on a topic that is very close to my heart. I also think that added to the list for Dems to have answers to is why we NEED Early Head Start and why the government should be expanding and supporting it rather than tearing it apart.

Democrats need to deal with the Education Issue set at a number of levels -- not all of them as part of a Presidential package.

Without question, NCLB needs clear criticism -- not only because of the failure to properly fund it, but because much of the testing fails to identify individual learning problems for which solution strategies might well be available. The tests are simply not diagnostic at the individual level. It is clearly possible to both test for achievement relative to norms or standards -- and at the same time incorporate diagnostic materials.

Initially, NCLB promised certified teachers in all classrooms, inservice training, professional development -- and added technical assistance such as teacher coaches and new technologies -- but none of that has been funded.

There is a scandal out there if someone wants to research it. Apparently NCLB includes money to build on-line support for Home Schoolers, but Congress did require that the program be operated by Certified Classroom Teachers. Instead, apparently William Bennett got the contract, and he is hiring, at low wares, non-teachers -- mostly rural parents to build his system. Recently two School Systems in Minnesota have gone to court to challenge the State over this -- but it is a national pattern. One wonders whether this is the only example of diverting resources from state NCLB funds to favored political friends?

Why is it that I'm thinking that one of the reasons that NCLB is so woefully underfunded is to set the stage for a shift in government funding and popular support from public to parochial schools.

Let's think like Karl Rove. GOP'ers have set a precedent in giving federal money to faith-based organizations to use for whatever purpose the organization sees fit. One of the major problems facing parochial schools is the lack of money to offer more classrooms, teachers, programs, etc. If you underfund NCLB and begin to increase funding to parochial schools, GOP'ers can bleed the public schools of students and support for public school funding. They do this by setting the stage for parochial schools to increase attendance and services, thus making it easier for them to absorb students from the under-performing public schools. GOP'ers can further undercut support for public school funding by then pointing out the growing disparity between public v. private school enrollments.

I think I have to agree with Sebastian--unfortunately, the education issue is a double-edged sword. On the one hand the GOP is vulnerable, but on the other hand they can spin the issue ("protecting our children and families from terrorists is our priority right now" etc.) and then go back on the attack with the voucher argument, which iof course is their longer term strategy.

I'm wondering if the Democrats are also disadvantaged by the fact that the widespread dissatisfaction with the public schools has evolved into a kind of skepticism about school reform, as well. It may be that many leading Democrats are afraid that the argument against vouchers etc. is not the winning argument it used to be.

Unfortunately, school equity issues are probably not high on the list of voter priorities, though they should be.

Apart from the equity issues, I personally think that the biggest education issues have to do with what happens before kids get to school. Economic and family stresses, governmental non-action, cultural changes and the privatization of public spaces have isolated families with young children as never before--and as a society we are in denial about it. Then when Johnny gets to school and can't learn how to read, we're all in an uproar over unaccountable teachers etc.

When are we going to start addressing the welfare of children before they reach school age? To me, that's the real key to improving our schools.


This is a hard issue to win for either party. Define vulnerable. Can the Democrats argue that Bush has put enough into education? Sure, but he can show he put more into education than Clinton...every year so far. Not a real big winner guys.

I think independents like me know that Democrats are bigger spenders on education but it is not just promising to spend more that improves education. As GApublius points out the problems in our school system begins in the home. Giving schools more money doesn't fix bad parenting.

Also worthy of mention on this topic is Gen. Clark.

Do read his interview with Josh Marshall:

For someone supposedly uninterested in domestic issues he has some things to say about public education that are outside the box and interesting.