Federal Dateline

A New Congress and an Old Tussle

by Bruce Hunter, director of policy, AASA

Coming soon to a congressional stage near you: Money fights and the struggle to overcome some tricky campaign rhetoric.

The tussle over financial support of public education lost one of its primary and most ardent fighters when Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and others were killed in a plane crash in late October. His loss greatly saddened us at AASA because he had become our go-to guy on funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the drive to leave control over educational decisions to the local level.

Wellstone, formerly a political scientist at Carleton College, was a friend to the nation’s public schools who never put his finger in the air to see how the political winds were blowing. He was driven by his own values and the views he heard from educators in Minnesota. A number of school leaders from his state met regularly with Wellstone and greatly influenced his thinking. In the weeks since his tragic death, we have sent our prayers to his surviving children and the families and friends of the other crash victims. And we passionately hope someone will step up to fill his shoes as an advocate for public education.

When Congress went home to campaign, final appropriations decisions were left until after the election. No action looked imminent on issues of concern to children and educators.

Constraining Forces
Lame duck sessions are always cause for both hope and alarm because the old Congress knows the makeup of the new Congress and may wish to do some really desirable or dastardly deed before the members adjourn sine die. Unusual actions are possible because the political forces that normally constrain members of Congress may be gone through defeat or retirement. When I was first beginning as a lobbyist for AASA, an old Washington hand told me that during lame duck sessions children should avert their eyes because some ugly business was likely.

We are hoping Congress will act on appropriations bills in a way that permits us to hold them accountable, but of course that will not be possible for two years because they waited until after the election to act. Waiting until after the November votes were counted was in itself a tipoff to its next moves. If the Congress was planning to fund new programs and other popular priorities, the members would have done it before the election when they could have used it in the campaign.

We have watched with interest the arguments of congressional representatives who are not inclined to favor public education. The least-supportive members have taken a tricky line of reasoning.

First they never say the word “voucher.” Second they always talk about support for public schools and follow that sentiment with a line that we really need to improve the many public schools that are failing. They never reference local schools in their congressional district. They instead choose to criticize public schools in general, knowing that folks back home like their local schools but have doubts about the overall quality of public education.

The unsupportive members avoid saying school choice in favor of parental choice. And even though the shift to federal control over the most critical educational decisions is the most important feature of the No Child Left Behind Act, the congressional member who does not support public education speaks endlessly in favor of local control. This misleading line of rhetoric has been tested in polls and focus groups and leaves the impression that the candidate will be pro public education when nothing could be further from the truth.

Many of these tricky campaigners landed in the 108th session of Congress. The misleading rhetoric will likely make it harder for us to get the new Congress to live up to its 28-year-old promise on IDEA funding and its one-year-old promise to fund the new mandates in No Child Left Behind.

Financial Burden
Now comes the hard part—helping the states and school districts implement a complex and costly statute that has the potential to change every state’s accountability system and teacher certification rules. Implementation is harder than passing a law because it has to be bent and shaped to fit the structure and financing of schools in 50 different states. Also the key provisions of the new statute assume massive new appropriations to fund change in high-poverty schools and improve teacher quality.

However, the tricky election rhetoric, the stalled economy and the massive 2002 tax cut will make the funding fight interesting. The rhetoric is necessary for those who do not support public education because public education has a deep reservoir of support, which we will use to force funding for IDEA and NCLB.

The topic of money also will be hot because, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lower tax receipts and previous tax cuts will force at least 40 states to either cut spending or raise taxes. When state spending on education is tight, the pressure on Congress to help out is much greater.

Public education is always in the position of needing to really make a good case for funding because schools always get the minimum amount taxpayers think is necessary for the schools they want. It is our job to convince them that our request is necessary to achieve those desired schools. Our long-term best friend is the broad support for their school and our long-term biggest hurdle is the low regard for schools in general and an unwillingness to pay any more taxes than the public feels is necessary to get the schools they want.

Bruce Hunter is AASA director of public policy. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org