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Republican Candidates Offer Few New Ideas on Education

Republican Candidates Offer Few New Ideas on Education
School vouchers are a perennial favorite, but higher education ideas are lacking.
By Charles Dervarics

As voters consider the education views of the 2008 presidential candidates, one trend is clear: Democrats like to issue papers on everything from pre-kindergarten programs to student aid. But Republicans keep it simple, with a general message of reform and, often, a nod to a favorite conservative issue — school vouchers.

“I’m surprised at the few specifics on the Republican side,” says Dan Brown, a former Bronx, N.Y., public school teacher and education blogger for the Huffington Post Web site. “There are some differences between them, but those differences would not make an impression on a teacher.”

In this occasional series on the 2008 campaign, Diverse takes a look
at the educational views of Republican candidates. Unlike many of the Democratic candidates, who have detailed position statements, the GOP candidates have few details on higher education. Their K-12 views focus largely on accountability, vouchers and strategies to promote U.S. competitiveness abroad and security at home.

The Republican field includes many seasoned Washington insiders: U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas, U.S. Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Ron Paul of Texas and Duncan Hunter of California and Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee who is an undeclared but likely candidate.

Yet none of these candidates has held high ranking positions on education-related panels. As a result, few have offered major legislation on the topic, lobbyists say.

According to Luke Swarthout, higher education advocate for U.S. PIRG, education policy “is driven very much by the House and Senate leadership.”

But campaign Web sites, as well as the public record, provide some details about the candidates.

Making his second try for the White House, McCain has voiced his support for K-12 school vouchers. He was also a key figure behind the Senate’s recent comprehensive immigration bill. While the measure ultimately failed, it did include the DREAM Act, a proposal that would make it easier for many Hispanic immigrants to attend and afford higher education. During his Senate career, McCain has fought against earmarks for lawmakers’ special projects, including those in education.

Another Republican presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, says he improved that city’s schools by ending social promotion and promoting accountability. Yet he also has expressed strong support for school choice, calling it “one of the great civil rights issues of our time.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have the longest track record on education after leading the New England state for two terms. As governor, he led a restructuring of the higher education system that included more funding for financial aid. At the K-12 level, he sought notebook computers for all middle and high school students, merit pay for teachers and a greater focus on math and science. As a candidate, he has cited an alarming “excellence gap” between U.S. schools and those in other countries.

While he has not yet formally joined the race, Thompson is attracting support from many conservatives unhappy with the other presidential options. In the Senate, Thompson voiced support for vouchers and argued for less federal regulation of education.

Some of the lesser-known GOP candidates have the most specific proposals. A former teacher and Denver regional director for the U.S. Department of Education, Tancredo would increase federal funding for special education but would otherwise reduce the government’s education role. “Federal involvement in education should be limited,” he says. “A no-strings-attached voucher system would promote choice.”

And Brownback, another former teacher, would give states the right to opt out of many federal regulations as long as they meet the No Child Left Behind Act goals through state rules. “Allowing states the freedom to establish their own educational guidelines will encourage more creativity and innovation in the classroom, which will lead to greater academic achievement,” he said in proposing the plan in Congress as the A Plus Act.

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