Education is becoming an increasingly divisive issue in the 1984 Presidential election, as Republicans and Democrats have differing views on how to address the widespread mediocrity in schools highlighted by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
In response to the report, Democrats, much like in the 1980 election, are advocating for more federal aid to education. Candidates Walter Mondale, the former vice president, and Senator Gary Hart have proposed education aid packages of $11 billion and $2 billion, respectively. Both candidates are hoping to gain the support of national teachers’ unions, particularly the National Education Association (NEA), which played a significant role in the 1980 Democratic convention and had the highest political spending among public-sector unions last year. The NEA estimates that implementing the commission’s recommendations would require an additional $14 billion investment from the federal government.
On the other hand, the Republican Party is aiming to expand its support base in 1984 by maintaining its stance on issues like school prayer and tuition tax credits, while emphasizing the importance of "quality" in schools. This focus on quality appeals to the concerns of parents about their children’s future.
According to press reports and interviews, the Administration’s main strategy involves driving a wedge between those who advocate for increased federal involvement in education, especially the NEA, and parents, particularly Catholics, Hispanics, and blue-collar workers, who are perceived to be more concerned about "family" issues. "You’re not going to see any change unless you engage parents whose children are in school," says a Republican Senate aide.
President Reagan has recently taken a stance on merit pay for teachers, which the NEA strongly opposes. During a speech at Seton Hall University in May, Reagan argued that teachers should be compensated and promoted based on their merit and competence. He expressed his disappointment at some of the influential figures within the national education lobby who oppose rewarding excellence.
In addition, President Reagan wrote a letter to NEA President Willard H. McGuire expressing his "surprise" at the NEA’s accusation that he was launching a "disgraceful assault on the teaching profession." The letter stated that much-needed reforms in salary, promotion, and tenure policies are being delayed due to the NEA’s lack of support. Reagan also expressed his support for the master-teacher proposal developed by the Governor of Tennessee and criticized the NEA’s strong opposition to the plan, which was subsequently rejected by a state Senate committee.
Gary L. Jones, undersecretary of education, labeled the NEA’s allegation as "blatant hyperbole," while the union official accused Reagan of ignoring the commission’s findings and introducing concepts that were not addressed by the Commission. The union official also requested a meeting with the President.
Observers believe that the Republicans are deliberately trying to corner the NEA and portray the President as being supportive of parents, children, and education, while painting the NEA as merely a self-serving union.
According to August W. Steinhilber, the associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, the current political climate does not allow the White House to take an anti-education stance. He noted that the science-education bill received a significant increase in funding from $50 million to $425 million, and the Senate voted to allocate an additional $1 billion for education. He also observed that the Democratic party has been skillfully capitalizing on education-related issues, aiming to appeal to school board members and projecting a pro-public-education image. This strategy is likely to resonate with Catholic educators as well, according to Edward Anthony, director of the office for educational assistance of the U.S. Catholic Conference. Anthony explained that while Catholic parents and educators support measures such as tuition tax credits and reintroducing prayer in public schools, they also advocate for federal aid to education, particularly for programs like Chapter 1, which assist disadvantaged children.
The Administration’s efforts to shift the focus of the school quality debate from the federal government to local schools may receive support from investigative hearings planned by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee later this year. Typically, congressional education committees oversee the implementation of federal programs in schools but rarely exercise their right to investigate local school practices. However, the Senate committee intends to examine certain common school practices, including the impact of collective-bargaining agreements on school curriculum, the effects of state legislative mandates, and the level of public involvement in education.
According to a committee staff member, this investigation is likely to highlight that the issue lies not with federal funding but with problems originating at the state and local level.