In a front-page Washington Post story on Monday, Jim VandeHei reported that President Bush’s vaunted education bill “is threatening to backfire on Bush and his party in the 2004 elections.” Bush is being criticized for not providing states with the funds needed to meet the bill’s new requirements. VandeHei quotes West Virginia governor Bob Wise, a Democrat, who says that the Bush administration is forcing his state to develop new tests but hasn’t ponied up the necessary funds: “I find it ironic. . . that the party that talks about being opposed to unfunded mandates is giving us a very significant unfunded mandates.” VandeHei also quotes Republican pollster David Winston, who said that his party’s ratings on education have dropped 14 points since January 2002, when the bill was signed. Both Winston and RNC chairman Ed Gillespie told VandeHei that they think that the numbers have dropped because Republicans, especially Bush, have not discussed education much in recent months.
The story’s biggest fault is that VandeHei doesn’t give the Republicans much opportunity to respond to the charge of underfunding. The truth is that spending on education has been rising fast over the last few years, including the late-Clinton and early-Bush years. The Democrats’ complaint is merely that funding has not risen to the levels authorized in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Bush is therefore supposedly breaking the promise he made in that act. To see why this charge is phony, you have to understand the distinction, familiar to everyone who follows Washington’s budget process, between “budget authority” and “budget outlays.” The budget “authority” is essentially a spending cap: It says that this much, and no more, can be appropriated for a program when the budget is being written. To spend beyond the authority, you need to pass a new authorizing law. Nobody treats budget authority as a promise to spend up to the cap. The No Child Left Behind Act was a reauthorization of programs that had last been authorized in 1994, when there was a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. They didn’t spend up to the authorized levels, either.
That’s it. That’s all there is to the Democratic argument about “underfunding.” VandeHei doesn’t explain what their argument is, let alone provide the background information necessary for readers to evaluate it.
Also left out of the article: the General Accounting Office’s conclusion, in a report this May, that states are getting all the funding they need to implement the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Gov. Wise appears to be wrong.
All of the above said, VandeHei does have a real story in the Republicans’ falling poll numbers. It was a big story when Bush’s presidential campaign and first year in office pulled the Republicans even with the Democrats on education. It will be interesting to see if the GOP adopts the Winston/Gillespie analysis of the slippage. Arguing in favor of that analysis is the popularity of the No Child Left Behind Act itself. Winston tells me that a poll his company did in late July–by which time the slippage had already occurred–showed that 45 percent of registered voters had a favorable impression of the law, and only 18 percent an unfavorable one. (Among the subset of registered voters who had heard of the law, 59 percent were favorable and 24 percent unfavorable.) So it’s more likely that Republicans are suffering because they’re not talking about education than that the law is backfiring on them.
It appears that Republicans’ ratings on education have less to do with particular policy initiatives than with the amount of time party figures spend talking positively about public education. Maybe Bush didn’t need to do a massive federal overhaul of education. He need only have declared his support for the Department of Education, pursued a few nice-sounding reforms, and talked a lot about how they would improve public education.