Republican governors see things differently than those on Capitol Hill


MIAMI -- When Republican governors meeting here were asked the other day if their education plan included a provision for abolishing the federal Department of Education, John Engler of Michigan had a quick answer.

''It's irrelevant,'' he said, ''because even if Congress passed a bill to abolish it, President Clinton would veto it.''

Ideological points

The popular Michigan governor thus -- perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not -- demonstrated the difference between the Republicans who control Congress and those who hold 32 state governorships. Congressional Republicans always seem to be trying to make an ideological point. By contrast, the governors are far more inclined to be practical. They are the ones who must run programs on a day-to-day basis, not just hold a hearing or news conference and perhaps cast a vote.

This is a difference in approach that applies to some degree to both parties and on a wide variety of issues. But it is particularly clear on questions that have an ideological component that House and Senate Republicans consider political magic.

Most conservative Republicans in Congress, to cite another example on education, are strong advocates of so-called voucher plans, meaning systems that would allow parents the option of using school vouchers to pay for their children's educations at private and church-related schools. This is an extremely popular notion with, among others, religious fundamentalists who would like to send their children to church schools.

Political poison

But it is also a proposal that many Americans see as threatening to the long-term health of the public schools, if not flat-out unconstitutional. And it is a proposal that could be political poison in the big industrial states groping for ways to improve their public schools. So it was no surprise that when the GOP's governors association announced a new initiative on education at its meeting here, the governors dodged the voucher question. As Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, the Republican Governors Association chairman put it, ''This is not one-size-fits-all. . . . There is no silver bullet.''

The Republican focus on education is in part a reflection of their ++ concern that this is another domestic question on which President Clinton has seized the initiative. And opinion polls show that concern with the condition of the schools has risen sharply among voters as they have found less reason to worry about their jobs and street crime. Indeed, many surveys now show education as the first priority for the electorate.

In fact, the federal role in education is a lot less important than the political rhetoric on both sides would suggest. In their PTC meeting here, the Republican governors were forced to rely on some gimmicks for the television cameras -- a multicolored chart ostensibly depicting the relationships among 39 federal agencies that administer 760 federal education programs and a huge pile of documents supposedly representing 20,000 pages of federal regulations governing those programs.

But, whatever the dimensions of the federal role, it has been clear for two generations now that voters pay far more discriminating attention to schools issues than to most. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, governors of many of the poorest states -- Bill Clinton of Arkansas among them -- found they could persuade taxpayers to spend more money on education if they could be convinced the money would be set aside for that purpose.

And since those early efforts by Democrats like William Winter of Mississippi and Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, taxpayers also seem to have made the connection between improving local school systems and attracting businesses that will sustain the local economy.

Early initiatives

Those early initiatives came from politicians at the state level almost without regard to party labels. And Congress, then as now, played a relatively minor role that often was more centered on ideological arguments about federal intrusiveness than on how to get more money for teachers and classrooms. That hasn't changed.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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