Candidates’ Advisor Choices Reveal Policy Intentions

Published February 1, 2008

With the 2008 presidential campaign in full swing, the leading candidates of both major parties have outlined vastly differing education policy proposals.

Most of the Democratic candidates have assailed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), though some have voiced support for it. On the Republican side, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been a strong advocate for renewing the act.

While campaign speeches and ads might give some clues about which direction the leading candidates might take K-12 education in the future, a look at who’s advising them can prove more instructive.

Voucher Proponents

The composition of Rudy Giuliani’s education policy team suggests he might push for more school vouchers. The Hoover Institution’s Terry Moe, a longtime proponent of vouchers, and former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige sit on Giuliani’s advisory board. Paige has consistently criticized what he calls teachers unions’ “death grip” on public education.

During his tenure as mayor of New York City, Giuliani advocated mayoral control of the schools and favored allowing for-profit school management companies take over failing public schools. The chairman of one such firm, Benno Schmidt of Edison Schools, advises Giuliani.

Clinton Holdovers

Democratic presidential frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton Clinton relies on holdovers from former President Bill Clinton’s education policy advisory team. That, along with her own well-documented advocacy of scaling back much of NCLB, provides a clear sense of her K-12 policy direction.

Clinton’s speech at the 2007 American Education Association’s national convention in Philadelphia garnered much attention when she derided NCLB’s emphasis on standardized testing.

“Our children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles,” Clinton said. “But how much creativity is being left behind? How much passion for learning is being left behind?”

Clinton’s domestic policy advisor, Catherine Brown, has championed Teach for America and helped craft the senator’s universal pre-K proposal, which has been the centerpiece of her education policy campaign platform.

Contrasting Strategies

Several education advisors to Republican challenger Romney worked with him while he was governor of Massachusetts. His top education policy advisor, Paul E. Peterson, is a professor of government at Harvard University, director of its Program on Education Policy and Governance, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and managing editor of the education reform magazine Education Next.

Another Romney advisor is Robert Costrell, the endowed chair in education accountability at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. Costrell played a key role in developing Romney’s 2005 education reform initiative.

Democratic hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (IL) surprised many by openly advocating teacher pay for performance, which teachers unions strongly oppose, when he spoke before the American Education Association in 2007.

Obama’s choice of Linda Darling-Hammond as a key, if unofficial, education policy advisor has drawn little notice, but this too suggests Obama might not take the typical approach espoused by Democratic candidates. Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor of education, has been a vocal critic of Teach for America, arguing it largely has failed to train young teachers adequately. She also has criticized NCLB for not sending more supplies, facilities, and other resources to public school districts.

Remember the Advisors

Notable among the education policy advisors to former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) is Heather McGhee, a progressive economic policy analyst at Demos, a New York-based liberal social policy think tank. Edwards also listens to longtime advisor James Kvaal, who elaborated on Edwards’s plan to “radically overhaul” NCLB in an online interview last October.

Most of the other presidential candidates have, for various reasons, chosen not to rely on high-profile education policy advisors. While Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) have both been major players in the 2008 campaign, neither has developed large cadres of policy advisors, primarily due to budget constraints. Both have relied on staffers instead of education policy “stars.”

While governor of Arkansas, Huckabee reluctantly imposed school consolidation and oversaw steady progress in student achievement. Though he has suggested NCLB might be revised to incorporate a greater emphasis on, for example, arts education, Huckabee largely believes in the standards and accountability movement.

McCain, in a none-too-subtle jab at Giuliani, has praised New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, and in particular those of New York City Education Commissioner Joel Klein, both of whom, McCain argues, offer more “choice and competition.” McCain draws much of his education advice from F. Philip Handy, former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education and state chairman of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) gubernatorial campaigns.

Brian Kisida ([email protected]) is a research associate for the School Choice Demonstration Project, and Brent Riffel ([email protected]) is deputy director of the Office for Education Policy, both at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

For more information …

“Testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee on the Re-Authorization of No Child Left Behind,” by Linda Darling-Hammond, September 10, 2007:

“John Edwards – Education Policy Questions James Kvaal,” Brightcove TV, October 20, 2007: