When it comes to education policy, President Bush and Senator Kerry share a lot in common. Both espouse federal fixes to America's schools. Both believe that schools should be more reliant on federal dollars instead of state and local monies. And both believe in a large role for the federal government in education.
Traditionally, education has been viewed as the responsibility of local school systems, teachers, parents and state governments. Certainly, the founders of this nation, who proclaimed that the powers of the federal government should be few and enumerated, never envisioned that local school policy would come under the control of Congress, the White House or any federal agency.
Today, however, state and national politicians compete to show who cares more about education. In Congress, that has mainly become a battle of one-upmanship between Democrats and Republicans over who is willing to throw more money at the schools.
President Bush has increased federal spending on education by more than 70 percent since taking office. Kerry's only criticism of Bush is that those increases have not been large enough. Kerry says he would spend $27 billion more to "fully fund" President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, in spite of the fact that two national reports indicate that federal funding for the act sufficiently covers the costs that states spend to implement it.
Even though both the president and his challenger favor large federal expenditures on education, there is a notable difference between them in how they view the role of parents. Bush favors allowing parents to have more say, through school choice, in where their children go to school. In the original battle over No Child Left Behind, President Bush pushed for school choice, including helping parents to afford private schools. Even though most of those reforms were removed from the final bill as part of the bipartisan compromise, it at least showed that the president was willing to trust parents.
Kerry, on the other hand, has consistently opposed school choice reforms that might ruffle the feathers of the teacher unions. Under a Kerry presidency, it's likely that the few provisions in No Child Left Behind that allow parental choice among public schools would be the first to go. Kerry has even gone so far as to oppose the school voucher program for children in the District of Columbia and has said that, as president, he would "veto vouchers or voucher-like programs the day that bill arrives."
So there are important differences between President Bush and Senator Kerry. But there is also an important similarity: neither Bush nor Kerry seems to recognize that the federal government can do much more to harm education in America than it can to help it. Federal "aid" to education has only created a web of regulation and bureaucracy, which prevents public schools and state legislators from responding in unique and creative ways to problems in education. Some of the strongest advocates of maintaining government's near monopoly over elementary and secondary education acknowledge that problem when they complain that it is "unfair" that charter schools and private schools aren't burdened by the same regulations and restrictions they endure. Since federal "help" always comes with paperwork and regulation, more federal spending on local schools could bring more harm than good.
Both President Bush and Senator Kerry believe in the magic of government and operate under the delusion that whoever sits in the White House can improve learning in school classrooms thousands of miles away. Both ignore the fact that federal mandates often backfire, create bureaucratic red tape and often lead to outcomes different from what are intended.
The war in Iraq, health care, budget deficits and tax cuts will likely be foremost in the minds of voters when they go to the polls next Tuesday (11/2). Education policy isn't the top issue for most people. Nevertheless, it's important to see how the candidates differ on this issue. Voters who want more parental choice in education should prefer Bush over Kerry. Voters who want more federal tax dollars and federal regulations for local schools should prefer Kerry.
But voters who would like less federal intrusion into local matters don't really have a choice.