Commentary

Closing the Trust Gap on Education?

By Derrick A. Max
This article first appeared on National Review Online, April 28, 2000.
In his speech introducing Governor Bush to the Republican Women’s Leaders Forum held in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson repeated the oft-used mantra that the Republican Party, under the leadership of candidate George W. Bush, has “closed the education credibility gap.” For decades, polls have shown that voters “trust” Democrats over Republicans on education policy — until now. The significance of this fact cannot be understated. It is widely believed that Republican’s need to attract significant support from female voters — voters who are perceived to place a higher value on education — in order to win in November. Thus, Bush has made education reform the centerpiece of his “compassionate conservative” campaign.

The real question that must be asked, however, is what has changed? Have voters come to embrace the traditional Republican belief in school choice? Do voters now realize the wisdom in Republican efforts to return education policy and funding to the states? Sadly, no. While these proposals do garner broad public support in poll after poll, this is not the agenda that Republicans have espoused, nor is it the education agenda most closely associated with today’s Republicans.

After six years of congressional control, Republicans have built an educational legacy not much different from that of the Democrats — spend, spend, and spend some more. In fact, congressional Republicans are proudly pointing out that they have spent more on education in the last several appropriations cycles than President Clinton requested (a boast they can make in several budgetary areas). While one would like to assume that this additional spending was on programs in line with traditional Republican beliefs, this assumption would be wrong. Republicans maintained the status quo in education and continued to fund the existing education bureaucracy that has failed to drive any measurable improvements in academic performance. Thus, it may be that the “education trust gap” has disappeared because the distinction between the two parties has disappeared. Not exactly a sea change in public opinion.

But what about candidate Bush? He polls very well on education and cannot be held responsible for the failures of the Republican Congress. Is he changing the education debate? Has George W. staked out a principled position on education that places parents and students ahead of teachers’ unions and the education bureaucracy? Do voters distinguish between Bush’s education policies and those of the Republicrats in Congress? Is this new compassionate candidate the impetus behind the closing of the education trust gap for Republicans? Again, sadly, no.

To be fair, candidate Bush has laid out a principled philosophy of reform to support his education agenda. He begins by asking that schools establish rigid goals for student achievement in basic areas of learning — goals that will be measured through annual testing and distributed in report cards on the schools that will be mailed home and published in local papers. He has called for increased flexibility in how local schools use federal resources and he promises to hold accountable any schools that fail to meet those goals. This accountability includes issuing vouchers to parents of children in schools that repeatedly fail to meet their goals, so parents can choose alternative schools, public or private. Bush rightly notes that competition is key to the long-term health of our educational system.

While this agenda is commendable, in fact revolutionary, by today’s standards, this is not what Bush is known for and it is not the aspect of his education agenda that is making it to the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Instead, voters have been treated to headlines touting Bush’s new $5 billion early-reading initiative, his $3 billion charter-school loan program, and his $25 million plan (filled with federal mandates) to expand character education (whatever that means). Spending, spending, and more spending — that is something voters understand. Unfortunately, it is this aspect of Bush’s education agenda, coupled with the spend-a-holic legacy of the Republican Congress, that has closed the education trust gap.

Because the trust gap has not been closed by a clear and distinct debate between two competing educational visions — choice and local control versus federal control and increased spending — public sentiment on education is yet to be truly tested. This is unfortunate, for I believe that the stronger aspects of Bush’s agenda lie in his call for accountability, flexibility, and choice — and not in his Kennedyesque new government programs.

Political analysts may worry that a radical shift in educational policy by Bush and the Republicans will only reopen the trust gap in education. They are right. A shift in emphasis to educational choice by Governor Bush would leave a wide chasm in the trust gap favoring Republicans and leaving Democrats searching for ways to hurdle that chasm by proposing market-based initiatives of their own.

Derrick Max is director of government affairs at the Cato Institute.