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USA Today On the Attack--Playing Footsie with New Age Democrats

Ohanian Comment: You think NCLB is about education? Forget it. It's about corporate power and political cronyism. Notice how this editorial lines up so neatly with the New Age Democrats' position. See:


Of Interest: This USA Today editorial online was supported by Clark for President: The Official Wesley Clark for President campaign site.

Democrats attack school reforms at political peril

Democrats running for president often target the nation's new education reform law that demands higher school standards. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean calls the law "mindless." Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri says it's an excuse to push private-school vouchers. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina complains that President Bush has ruined his own law by failing to fund it adequately.

The candidates are adopting attack lines suggested by the National Education Association, the teachers union that exerts great influence on Democrats in state primaries where turnout is key. The 2.7-million member union offers candidates thousands of door-to-door volunteers to get out the vote.

The NEA has been urging the Democratic contenders to criticize the Bush administration for requiring schools to meet tough new standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind reform law without providing enough money to meet those goals. And candidates regularly make that argument.

But in this case, the NEA is leading the Democrats into a trap. Based on its own polling results obtained by USA TODAY, complaints about funding shortfalls won't resonate with voters. The NEA analysis, based on polling by six firms and eight voter focus groups, shows that criticizing the law could be a losing political strategy. Once voters hear supporters describe the law, they tend to embrace it.

That means candidates who parrot the NEA's opposition risk sounding more like obstructionists rather than reformers committed to improving classroom performance. They also jeopardize the Democratic Party's hard-fought reputation as an advocate for better education for poor and minority children, a key focus of the new legislation.

Speaking to voters' worries

As president, Bush has successfully tapped into the public's concern about failing schools. The NEA plans to release a new survey on his efforts on Wednesday. Yet its earlier polling suggests that Democrats who attack Bush based on narrow special-interest concerns could do so at their peril. Among the reasons:

Voters like federal school reform. NEA leaders and many teachers dislike the law because it forces unpopular curriculum changes, requires increased testing and spotlights failing schools. But numerous polls show that voters appreciate the accountability promised by the law.

Funding complaints lack appeal. While the Democratic candidates often refer to the federal law as an "unfunded mandate," the NEA's polling concludes that money is not an issue with voters. Instead, their top education concerns are parental involvement, unequal access to education opportunities and student motivation.

The Democrats' attacks are persuasive only with voters ignorant about the law. An NEA document summarizing the research states: "Once our opponents have an opportunity to provide voters with their descriptions of the content of the law, swaying them becomes increasingly difficult."

Democratic candidates' tin ear on voters' education priorities this year is unusual for a party that traditionally has prevailed on schooling issues. That advantage was on display during the Clinton administration, which gave states more money to reduce class size, demanded more school accountability and sponsored innovative reforms such as charter schools. In 1996, President Clinton won 78% of the vote of those who listed education as their top concern.

The Democrats' edge narrowed in the 2000 election, when Al Gore focused on providing more federal funds rather than the goals they would finance. By contrast, Bush stressed accountability and promoted an ambitious plan modeled after Texas reforms that focused on neglected poor and minority students. By Election Day, Bush had pulled nearly even with Gore on education issues, according to polls.

Currently, voters still have more confidence in Democrats' handling of education. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll out Monday showed the Democratic Party favored over the GOP, 50% to 41%. But Bush himself enjoys a higher approval rating on education 52% according to a survey by the Winston Group released last week.

The NEA argues that public backing for Bush's No Child Left Behind law often is based on simplistic and distorted promises by its supporters. Other polls, however, show that the more factual details provided to voters, the more they like what they hear. In the Winston Group poll, for instance, voters viewed the law favorably, 54% to 23%.

Therein lies the trap. Democratic presidential hopefuls who criticize school accountability are attacking provisions designed to help the poor and minority students whose parents tend to vote Democratic. And in spite of candidates' complaints that Bush inadequately funds schools, federal spending on low-income school districts has increased 40% since he took office.

Retaining their mantle as champions of education requires the Democrats to embrace the attitudes of voters surveyed by the NEA not the anti-reform views spouted by their powerful patron.

Here's Reg Weaver's reply.

Reforms rightly criticized

By Reg Weaver
What do parents and voters want for their public schools? What do they see as the most important problems to address? Not surprisingly, they single out parental involvement and student motivation and achievement as the most important issues. All understand that schools play a part in encouraging both, but it requires family and community participation to get the results that we need.
Another thing is clear from polling during the past two decades: People understand resources make a difference. Voters believe that public schools do not get enough financial support and they believe the federal government should do much more.

Findings from polls conducted by the National Education Association have been consistent with those conducted by a Gallup Poll for a national education group and a poll of school superintendents: The more people who are involved in schools know about the No Child Left Behind law, the less they like it. While NEA and the public support the goals of the legislation, there is wide agreement that the implementation plan is flawed and the resources allocated are insufficient to make the changes needed to provide every child with a first-class education.

Voters worry about the law's one-size-fits-all testing requirements and the resulting bureaucracy and paperwork, which this law dumps on states and schools to historical highs. What it doesn't provide is funds for what will make a difference: small class sizes, quality teachers and support professionals and up-to-date books and materials.

The administration says there's more than enough money to pay for the tests, but that's not what parents are asking for. What they want are good teachers and good programs for their children. Instead, what their children are getting from the administration is the daily pressure of rising expectations while facing a steady decrease in the resources necessary to accomplish their goals.

It is fitting and proper that the Democratic presidential candidates have addressed concerns about the new law. The NEA has worked for many years to help both Democratic and Republican candidates as well as other officials and policymakers understand what it takes to educate America's children. Contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are responding to parents and voters and their growing insistence that more standardized tests, bureaucracy and paperwork are not what students need to achieve.

For those of us who work with children, the issue is not accountability vs. no accountability but whether standardized tests are the best or only way to measure student performance. It's not whether there is enough money to operate the new federal bureaucracies, but whether there is enough money to enhance educational opportunity for all students. In imposing the mandates of this new education law, Washington has written a check that states can't cash.

Reg Weaver is president of the National Education Association. Voters worry about law's flawed implementation, poor funding.

— Editorial
Democrats attack school reforms at political peril
USA Today


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