JAVITS CENTER, NEW YORK–As recently as 1996, the Republican-party platform called for the abolition of the Department of Education as an unconstitutional, heavy-handed, and ineffective entity. Eight years later, things have changed.
Conservatives in New York this week knew there was trouble once they read the first sentence of the platform on “No Child Left Behind.” It read: “Public education is the foundation of civil society.” (In comparison to “family,” which earned the description of being the “cornerstone.”)
The second sign of trouble was learning that the subcommittee handling education was chaired by Rep. Phil English (R., Penn.), a key ally of Arlen Specter this past spring, and had the endorsement of the National Education Association.
The two days of platform debate confirmed the suspicion that the GOP has become the party of Big Education.
On Wednesday, conservative Texas delegate Kelly Shackelford moved to strike the “foundation” sentence, asking “were we not a civil society for the first hundred years of our country?” English and most of the delegates resisted, insisting the GOP declare its undying support of government schools.
So Shackelford offered a compromise: just remove the word “public.” Education as a foundation of civil society was an idea most people can accept. Invoking an idea of tolerance fit for George Orwell, some delegate objected that without specifying public education over private and religious education, that sentence would be discriminatory. Shackelford lost again.
After all was done with the subcommittee, the first sentence appeared as, “Public Education is a foundation of free and civil society [emphasis added].” Shackelford and others tried in full committee to add other kinds of education to that sentence, but they were defeated again, at the urging of English.
The next section was even more displeasing to conservatives. Titled “Historic Levels of Funding,” it bragged about outspending Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon on education. The paragraph could have been mistaken for an angry screed from a disillusioned fiscal conservative:
“President Bush and Congressional Republicans have provided the largest increase in federal education funding in history and the highest percentage gain since President Johnson.”
Efforts to strike this paragraph (“we’re using liberal Democrats in our platform and saying we’re worse than them,” objected one delegate) were met with angry scolds by the Bush campaign’s proxies, but conservatives got a bone thrown to them when the full committee struck the words “President Johnson” and replaced them with “the 1960s.”
One other scuffle on education reflects the entire platform process’s central-planning problem. Shackelford introduced an amendment to reinsert language from the 2000 platform saying education is essentially a local undertaking. He was defeated by other delegates who explained that Republicans no longer believe in local control after No Child Left Behind.
When he couldn’t convince other delegates with appeals to conservative principles, Shackelford turned to the true guiding star for the platform: the Bush campaign’s policy team.
With the stamp of approval from the campaign, Shackelford was able to pass his amendment through full committee–with the campaign’s proxies explaining that although No Child Left Behind looked like a huge federal power grab, it really was all about local control.
Delegates also failed to insert language objecting to in-state college tuition for illegal aliens. No one even tried to deny illegals access to public schools.
Conservatives hoping for real education reform had started losing hope in the GOP before the 2000 election. This platform convinced conservatives that on education, it may be about time to jump the GOP ship.
–Timothy P. Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.