The Politics of Education

By Thornton, Leslie | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Education


Thornton, Leslie, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


This reflection identifies education as the primary domestic priority for both major political parties. Her commentary opens our conversation about education with an important question: How do you fundamentally change public education in a way that is not intrusive and over-reaching but, in the short-term, turns education around?

Having learned his lesson from the senior President Bush, whose poll numbers plummeted when he vowed to abolish the U.S. Department of Education in the 1992 presidential race, Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) vowed instead to "overhaul" it when he ran for president against Bill Clinton.

President Clinton, you may remember, actually ran as the "education president." He had been the "education governor" in Arkansas, after all, and championed policies that raised test scores and helped more disadvantaged kids get to college. In the 2000 presidential election year, both candidates ranked education among their highest priorities. George W. Bush called himself the "real" education presidential candidate, and now President Bush still calls education his top domestic priority.

None of this is surprising. Previous presidential election cycles have seen education emerge as the number one issue on which most Americans believe more federal dollars should be spent. A 2000 survey by the University of Chicago revealed that over the preceding ten years, support for education had risen to the top of America's priority list, surpassing concerns about crime.

September 11, 2001, has likely skewed those conclusions for the upcoming presidential election, but, unquestionably, a presidential candidate's view of and plan for education is one of the issues voters prioritize in evaluating and picking their national leader. President Bush has already begun to run on the issue. Unlike in other presidential cycles, however, Bush faces opposition to his own education policies from within his party and from Democrats. For the first time anyone I know in education can remember, state governors, legislators, and administrators are actually considering not taking Bush's federal education funds. Imagine it. The federal government offers hundreds of millions of education dollars to a budget-strapped state, and the state says, "Naaaaaaaaah--you keep it." It's extraordinary, particularly at a time when almost every state in the union has a budget deficit.

Ms. Thornton, Patton Boggs partner, was chief of staff to the United States Secretary of Education, deputy advisor to President Clinton for the 1996 presidential debates, and associate counsel in the 1992 presidential transition. She has written numerous articles in publications including Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, American Lawyer, Boston Globe, and Legal Times.

So, what's going on? In 2002, President Bush enacted No Child Left Behind, the signature piece of education legislation that he promised voters in his 2000 campaign and the bill he expected to propel him through a 2004 reelection. Indeed, the fact that he--by his own admission--has not actually read the bill aside, President Bush has been traveling the country talking about the bill's importance and its early success. The new law requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight and requires schools whose students do not meet the bill's standards for "adequate yearly progress" to take remedial action. The schools could be designated as failing, and they are exposed to penalties, including forced transfer of students and being taken over by the state. The complicated new law is more than one thousand pages long and attaches the availability of federal funding to successfully meeting the bill's stringent, high-consequence requirements.

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