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HOW REPUBLICANS LOST THE EDUCATION ISSUE

11:00 PM, Nov 24, 1996 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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That the education issue was weakening GOP electoral prospects became clear the day a New York Times-CBS poll reported it was top priority among undecided voters -- and that twice as many Americans trusted the Democrats with it. And it's been no solace to learn from exit polls that Bill Clinton's education stance helped him lock up women's votes on Election Day.

The country has come a long way from the days when Ronald Reagan and William J. Bennett were the nation's education truth-tellers, when Democrats were part of the problem and GOP governors like Lamar Alexander and Tom Kean offered solutions. And the distance we have traveled has not been good for Republicans -- or, one might add, for American schoolchildren, who are learning as little today as when the nation was declared "at risk" by a blue- ribbon commission in 1983.

Yet education remains a natural issue for the GOP because of the split between the interests of its "producers" -- teachers' unions, sure, but also ed schools, superintendents' associations, textbook publishers, etc. -- and those of its "consumers": students, parents, employers, and taxpayers. As long as Democrats stay joined at the hip to the education producers, Republicans should be the champions of education's far more numerous consumers -- 50 million schoolchildren and their families, for starters.

Consider testing. The producers want it complex, infrequent, done by the school system itself, reported in opaque terms ("Your child is in the second stanine . . ."), and above all unmoored to any consequences for themselves. The principal's tenure must not be affected by his students' achievements, nor should the teacher's pay, nor even the pupil's promotion to the next grade.

Consumers, on the other hand, want testing to be simple, linked to explicit standards, conducted by trustworthy outside auditors, reported in language a parent or employer can understand ("She's in the top 10 percent"), and routinely used for decisions about the fate of staff and students.

When interests diverge this sharply, when there are so many more consumers than producers, and when the Democrats are irrevocably hitched to the latter, the Republican opportunity is plain.

Yet the opportunity has been squandered One reason is that the producers are superbly mobilized in an alphabet soup of shrewd, energetic, and rich organizations. The consumers are not really organized at all -- and when they appear to be, as in the PTA and various business executives' groups, on closer inspection they turn out to have been co-opted.

Hence the GOP has big trouble wrapping its arms around those millions of education-minded voters. There's no counterpart to the Christian Coalition, the NRA, or the AARP. Absent a ready-made group with juices flowing, any party -- or candidate -- must tap into the retail concerns of countless individuals But Republicans haven't been adept at this either. Education leads the parade of issues about which they're far better at saying what they're against than what they're for.

What they're against could fill a high-school gym: teachers' unions, national standards, the federal Education Department, the Goals 2000 program, outcomes-based education, schools of education, federal interference, money wasted on bureaucracy, the government monopoly, whole-language reading, bilingual education, and so forth.

But what are Republicans for? Aside from various "abolitions" and "repeals," all we really know they're for is vouchers. The rest is hazy -- the more so because Bill Clinton showed his genius for seizing such obvious prospects as charter schools and uniforms Vouchers are a fine thing to favor. They are the very symbol of consumer power, a powerful way to crack the monopoly, and the teachers' unions' worst nightmare. But vouchers are also education's counterpart of abortion: a divisive issue about which most people have strong, fixed opinions and that political opponents can use as a wedge to split single-issue voters from otherwise like-minded allies.