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.

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.

But to make the case, one must be able to place the evidence before voters - - Just how did the unions keep real charter legislation from being enacted in Ohio? in Indiana? in Georgia? -- and dangle copies of those hundred-page bargaining contracts that make it impossible to fire incompetent teachers or reward great ones. One must present details of how much money the unions' PACs contributed and to whom. Names of NEA officials who played key roles in the Clinton-Gore campaign must be named. Quotes from the bizarre resolutions passed at their conventions must be cited. Proof that the AFT executive council last summer rejected a serious "teacher quality" initiative proposed by union president Albert Shanker must be offered. More specimens of union- generated mischief must become fodder for commercials. Taking on the teachers' unions, in other words, is a big political project, and not just an acceptance-speech sound-bite, as it was for Dole.

Without a major effort, it's easy for teachers to get away with the "he who attacks my union attacks me personally" response we heard so often this year. Since most Americans have a warm feeling toward their own child's teacher, this circling of the union wagons produced a fortified target that Dole could never vanquish.

To sum up, these are the four hard-learned lessons for the GOP from the experiences of the 104th Congress and the recent campaign:

1. Say what you're for, not what you're against -- and what you're for is saving public education, not destroying it.

2. Don't hang it all on vouchers.

3. Recognize that the audience is naive -- and the opposition plenty shrewd -- about what it means to be "for education" but "against the education establishment."

4. Heed those who have had success in this area.

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