For decades, Republicans have had trouble figuring out what they're for in K-12 education, especially at the national level. Until about twenty years ago, they were far more adept at saying what they opposed: a bigger federal role. Then they got into both standards-based reform (Bush 41's America 2000 and of course Bush 43's NCLB) and school choice (vouchers, charters, etc.), all pointing to a greater role for Washington.

Some have attempted from time to time to shove that genie back into his lamp, such as Reagan's (abortive) effort to abolish the Education Department and reduce spending, the (futile) post-1994 efforts by some Gingrich allies to do the same, and today's GOP House and Senate bills to roll back NCLB (see here). But the long-term trend has indisputably been toward expanded and more forceful federal involvement with education that often, though not always, could claim grudging Republican support if not Republican origins.

Politically, however, education has been a far stronger issue for Democrats, who have unblushingly pushed for more federal dollars, more protections for favored groups, more special-interest-serving programs--but who also have cleverly served up to middle-class soccer moms and dads a buffet of such goodies as smaller classes, school uniforms, after-school programs, even the promise of better teachers. It mattered not whether this made for sound federal policy or better schools. It was shrewd politics--and relatively easy to do, since it appears (however cynically) to blend the real interests of teacher unions with the perceived interests of parents. It's why most "whom do you trust more" surveys have revealed an electorate with greater faith in Democrats than Republicans to make education decisions.

That the GOP briefly rallied in education-voters' eyes around 2000 has much to do with the track record of reformist governors (including Bush) at the state level but also to the Bush-Cheney team's politically astute decision to depart from traditional GOP education precepts, emphasize "compassion" as much as conservatism, and proffer an education reform agenda that appealed to those soccer parents who may think their own kids' schools are okay but who also care about the plight of kids across the tracks.

This, in turn, enabled bipartisan convergence on NCLB, though many Republicans voted for it while holding their noses because of its "big government" elements (and rejection of serious school choice) and many Democrats have griped about the GOP administration's alleged tightfistedness in funding it (and failure to "enforce" its provisions with sufficient vigor).

Which is to say, in the half-decade since NCLB's enactment--feels more like a half-century, frankly--both parties have tended to revert to their traditional stances.

That almost certainly gives the advantage to Democrats in the 2008 election insofar as education gets attention. (It may not, due to Iraq, terrorism, global warming, health care, abortion, you name it, though Eli Broad and Bill Gates are trying their darndest to make it a top tier issue; see below.)

What, if anything, can the GOP and its swelling band of presidential candidates do to change that situation? Here are the three big options:

  • Keep reverting. Promise to defang NCLB, empower states, shrink the federal role and talk of local control. Add a soupcon of school choice.
  • Follow Bush's 2000 lead. Focus on perfecting NCLB and improving education for poor kids--including a big dollop of means-tested choice--not so much to win poor parents' vote as to appeal to affluent voters who respect compassion and moderation.
  • Appeal to the middle. Develop their own buffet of delectables for middle and upper-middle class parents who might lick their lips and vote Republican.

Sound education policy, in my view, would draw from the first two options, reformulating NCLB to benefit poor kids but doing so in ways that hew more faithfully to GOP principles. Picture more choice, selective deregulation, and "charter states" that get wide-ranging freedom to run their schools as they think best in return for demonstrated improvement in academic performance. A whopping battle will rage over whether such improvement can be demonstrated on a state's own standards and tests, as in the recent "A-plus" bills of Hoekstra, DeMint, and others, or must be shown in relation to external standards and tests. (Take a deep breath and repeat after me: national standards in return for state flexibility might be a bargain worth striking.)

Sound policy, yes, but will it be smart politics? Possibly, so long as it's presented to voters wrapped in compassion, freedom, choice, and higher standards, not as parsimony, "states rights," and moving backward.

That's where I hope the GOP and its candidates end up. But smarter politics--and probably worse policy--point to option 3: the middle-class buffet.

What might be on it? A "liberal arts" education for all kids, including art, music, history and civics, not just "drill and kill" in basic skills. Quality after-school programs, or tax breaks for "supplemental" education activities (such as online learning or dance class or summer camp). Quality pre-school for those that want it. The ability to choose their kids' teachers. (Most upper middle class families have already chosen their schools.) Discipline, but not so much that kids are "stifled." The latest technology. And affordable higher education.

True, it sounds like the sort of thing Bill Clinton might offer--and that his wife very likely will. Indeed, the risk to Republicans is that Democrats will set out a more lavish buffet. I doubt the GOP can out-cook or out-pander them.

What it can try to do, however, is present itself as the "parents' party," drawing on options 2 and 3, and aiming both at compassionate voters and at self-interested families. Reformulate NCLB for the poor and set out a smorgasbord for the middle class. Sharpen the distinction between education's providers--the Democrats' staunch friends--and its consumers. Side with the consumers. That means placing on the policy buffet some tasty wedges that parents will welcome but unions will hate and Democrats must therefore oppose: e.g., a national database of information about individual teachers' instructional effectiveness, resumes, ratings by parents, and attendance records. The producers will yowl. The consumers will cheer. And they're far more numerous, the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of 50 million school kids. (Our friend the Eduwonk recently remarked, "In America, when consumers and producers fight, bet on the former, even if it takes a long time.")

The challenge here is to avoid the trap that Bill Clinton set for Bob Dole in 1996. Dole faulted teacher unions and Democrats' coziness with them. He was right. But Clinton successfully refracted this back to the electorate as Dole criticizing your own child's beloved teacher. Which upset the soccer moms.

Are Republicans clever enough to get this right and establish themselves as the parents' party in the great education tug-of-war? If so, I predict that (insofar as education issues matter at all) they'll win the 2008 election and more to follow.

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