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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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Americans do believe in freedom and choice in schooling, but they also believe in an abstraction called "public education" -- and don't take kindly to candidates who seem to be against it. Moreover, those who like vouchers best -- inner-city minority parents justifiably furious about their kids' public schools -are not natural GOP constituents. Meanwhile, the people most apt to vote Republican -- suburban and rural folk -- aren't too alarmed by the schools near them (never mind that they should be) and tend to think they've already exercised educational choice by living outside the cities. Nor would many of their children even be eligible for the limited, means- tested vouchers (or scholarships) that have won a measure of political acceptance -- they're operational today in Milwaukee and Cleveland -- and do not bring down quite so many thunderbolts from editorial writers and the League of Women Voters.

Vouchers, in sum, are dandy policy but less-thanbrilliant politics from the GOP perspective. Nor does it help when their staunchest advocates pooh-pooh all other education reforms as placebos that will only delay the revolution.

Being against a lot of things isn't smart, either. Despite three decades of evidence that boosting school budgets and other inputs does not reliably translate into stronger educational results, most Americans still link money with school quality or -- at least -- associate being "for education" with supporting a bunch of programs and actions that sound as if they must be good for schools and kids.

The electorate is none too sophisticated about all this, and the Democrats have made much hay from its naivete, slapping seductive labels on often- horrific programs. (The latest big federal abomination was dubbed the " Improving America's Schools Act.") They have successfully branded the GOP as the cheap, anti-education, anti-kid, know-nothing party because Republicans want to stop wasting money on ill-conceived projects. Few GOP standard- bearers have had a convincing explanation for slashing, cutting, even trimming, education spending, and they haven't been able to explain how less can sometimes be more. (Recall the school-lunch debacle.) Bob Dole and Jack Kemp certainly could not explain this during the campaign. Nor could the leadership of the 104th Congress -- not least because some key Republican figures (Vermont's Jim Jeffords comes to mind) might as well be Democrats when it comes to education, while the House freshmen, among others, glowed with hostility even to such bona fide government activities as testing.

Dozens of outrages and excesses in the education field could legitimately be laid at the feet of Uncle Sam in general and the Clinton administration in particular. But nobody bothered to find the smoking guns -- to explain in detail how the Office for Civil Rights has undermined state standards, how the "regional education laboratories" spend federal dollars to keep their gravy train on track, how bilingual education keeps kids ignorant of English, how federal "special-ed" policy creates bizarre incentives for more kids to be deemed "disabled" and dangerous youngsters to remain in regular classrooms, how charter schools are denied their fair share of federal dollars, and much more. Explaining all this takes plain-English presentations by people who know what they're talking about, and it takes a clear vision of what an alternative might look like. This the Dole-Kemp campaign and the Congress failed at.

Congress actually did worse. After denouncing the Education Department and its programs and getting tarred with the brush of budget-cutting, it wound up appropriating more money for all those old programs than even Bill Clinton had requested. The closing days of the 104th Congress resembled a pork auction as dozens of programs once targeted for oblivion got funded beyond the education establishment's wildest dreams. Americans may be unsophisticated about program details, but they have a keen nose for hypocrisy and inconsistency.

The Republicans who have done the best job of making education sense to the public -- explaining what they're for and how the country will be better served if their policies prevail -- have been a handful of governors (Engler, Thompson, Weld, Bush, et al.) and former education secretaries Bennett and Alexander. Yet the Dole-Kemp campaign and GOP platform-writers all but ignored the governors when framing policies in this field, as did the 104th Congress.

Nor did targeting the teachers' unions turn out to be a shrewd move, justified though it is on the merits. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are much the strongest defenders of the education status quo and the fiercest foes of serious reforms of every sort.