Politics & Policy

Out to Lunchtime

Kerry's got nothing to study re: education.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Convention will adopt a platform containing a three-page education plank that offers something for everybody but nothing in particular, save for a pointed three-paragraph dig at George W. Bush. Insofar as one can detect policy impulses in the fog, however, many of them resemble what Republicans also say. Think of them as standard education pabulum: attention to “fundamental skills” and “fundamental values,” “a great teacher in every classroom,” closing learning gaps, higher graduation rates, citizenship education, parent partnerships, school choice (confined, for Democrats, to charter and magnet schools), making college affordable, etc.

The closest the platform comes to a provocative idea–and the closest that John Kerry has come–deals with teachers. In 1998, you may remember, he gave a much-noted speech that called for “ending teacher tenure as we know it.” (He also urged that every public school become “essentially a charter school.”) It seemed, for one brief shining moment six years ago, as if he might be breaking from the Democrats’ ancient obeisance to the teacher unions.

A remnant endures in the new platform, presumably written by the Kerry team: “We must raise pay for teachers, especially in the schools and subjects where great teachers are in the shortest supply…. At the same time, we must create rigorous new incentives and tests for new teachers…. And teachers deserve due process protection from arbitrary dismissal, but we must have fast, fair procedures for improving or removing teachers who do not perform on the job.”

Note that the “incentives and tests” apply only to new teachers. The word “tenure” is never used. It’s a pale shadow of 1998. Indeed, it’s muted since May 6 when Kerry said (per the Los Angeles Times) that “he would provide states more than $20 billion over the next decade to hire more teachers and raise their pay in return for new efforts to weed out poorly performing instructors…. Kerry would require all states receiving the new federal money to toughen the tests used to certify new teachers. Even more dramatically, he would require those states to simplify the process for teacher dismissal.”

Predictably, the National Education Association threw a fit and summoned Kerry for career counseling. And the candidate has since eased off. Now he murmurs “due process” first, then suggests “improving or replacing teachers who do not perform on the job.”

Okay, not a complete flip-flop. Sort of a cartwheel.

A new Brookings analysis of education proposals advanced thus far in the 2004 campaign sorts them into four categories and says this about Kerry’s:

Preschool: “Senator Kerry has said that he wants to make preschool universal. However, in the interest of keeping deficits under control, he has backed away from a specific proposal in this area.”

Elementary-Secondary: “Kerry advocates exempting education spending from [his proposed] cap on discretionary spending by proposing a ten-year $200 billion entitlement to the states for education spending…. Roughly half the total…would be devoted to No Child Left Behind (the signature Bush education law).”

After-school: “Kerry has proposed to expand and revamp the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program…from $1 billion to $2.5 billion… [and] shift the focus from exclusively academic benefits to include emphasis on values and decision-making skills that encourage children to avoid drugs, crime, and other risky behavior.”

Higher education: “Kerry proposes to reduce the cost of attending college by expanding tuition tax credits for most households…from $1500 to $2500; they would be available for four years instead of two; and they would be made refundable.”

Are you yawning yet? With the White House proffering equally drab ideas (e.g. taking high school more seriously), it seems likely that the 2004 education debate is going to hinge on spending levels, not ideas.

Kerry is dashing around dangling dollars–notably to the teacher-union conventions earlier this month. There’s the new $200 billion education “trust fund,” to be financed by raising taxes. There’s $27 billion to “fully fund” No Child Left Behind. There’s a recent promise to “fully fund special needs education,” too.

It’s instructive to compare this Democratic platform to the 2000 version and to note how much gutsier and more eloquent was the education plank that Messrs. Gore and Lieberman ran on. Though smug about the Clinton record, it went on to say that “every teacher should pass a rigorous test to get [into the classroom]…. Every failing school in America should be turned around–or shut down and reopened under new public leadership…. [N]o high school student graduates unless they have mastered the basics of reading and math…. Parents across the nation ought to be able to choose the best public school for their children…. High-quality, affordable pre-school should be fully available to every family…. The achievement gap between students of color and the rest of America’s students should be eliminated.”

And all that to be accomplished in a single presidential term! Sky pie, sure, but ideas to stir the education blood, goals worth aspiring to. One might suppose Bush’s four-year push for school reform would invigorate his rivals to demand even greater change than Gore-Lieberman did. But no. In this campaign, pabulum reigns.

The editorial writers at USA Today recently accused Kerry of being “absent on school accountability” and to urge a “Sister Souljah moment” wherein he distances himself from the unions. At both of their July conventions, however, the senator declined to follow that excellent counsel.

Bottom line: The teacher unions remain in charge of the Democrats’ education policies and Kerry-Edwards refuse to rile them. Hence the ticket’s position boils down to this: “We sort of agree with Bush about what’s wrong with American education and yes, we voted for his bill, though we now have misgivings, but we promise to spend buckets more than he will and we’ll make sure that education reform doesn’t upset the educators.”

Anyone for a nap til November?

A senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester E. Finn Jr. served as assistant secretary of education for research and improvement, and counselor to the secretary, from 1985 to 1988.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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