Ventura to Feds: Butt Out of Education

Published April 1, 1999

“My view is, if Washington didn’t overtax us so much on their end, we would have much more money to spend as individual states, and allow us to take care of our own education system.”
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura
“Meet the Press,” February 20, 1999

Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura may have been a newcomer to the National Governors Association annual meeting in Washington, DC, in February, but it didn’t take his fellow governors long to realize that the former professional wrestler knew as much about aggressive political combat as they did.

Ventura made it clear he was not going to let President Clinton or anyone else define for him the terms of the debate about federal education and taxation policies. Immediately after his election last November, Ventura had defined education and over-taxation as his state’s two main issues.

“Why should Washington be involved at all in states’ education?” Ventura asked on the February 20 edition of “Meet the Press.” “If they didn’t tax us so much, we’d have that much more to deal with,” he continued, “rather than going in this big circle of sending our money to Washington and then Washington returning it to us.”

It was not so much Washington’s money that other governors objected to, but the rules and regulations attached to it–even now, before layering on the additional conditions President Clinton wants to impose to ensure federal tax dollars are directed to “what works.” (See “Clinton Wants More Strings on K-12 Funding,” School Reform News, March 1999.) Republican governors in particular said the federal government should have little to say about how states spend education dollars. Several are seeking waivers from existing restrictions that tell states what kinds of programs the federal education dollars must be spent on.

Designing “a one-size-fits-all system” isn’t possible because each state has different priorities, said GOP Michigan Governor John Engler. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, another Republican, was more blunt: the federal government should “do as much as they can to stay the heck out” of education. While GOP Utah Governor Mike Leavitt was in favor of “a national agenda for improvement of education,” he said “a federal agenda” was something very different.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Clinton proposed a package of accountability measures designed to hold students, teachers, and schools to the high standards needed for success in the next century. While the details of the President’s plan are not yet available, he plans to send Congress his Education Accountability Act, which will require the following actions from states and school districts that receive federal funds:

  • End social promotion.
  • Ensure all teachers are qualified.
  • Turn around the lowest-performing schools.
  • Give parents annual report cards on school performance.
  • Institute effective school discipline policies.

That agenda notwithstanding, Clinton insisted at a two-hour White House meeting with the governors that the federal government didn’t “have any business telling you whom to hire, how to teach, how to run schools.” Republicans remained skeptical of the President’s plan, which they viewed as an expansion of federal authority over education.

Several Republican governors pointed out that the federal government provides such a small fraction–about 7 percent–of the nation’s education costs that it wasn’t entitled to dictate education policy to the states. “You can’t possibly micro-manage public education from Washington or Harrisburg,” said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. “Let’s talk partnership,” he urged, “not dictatorship.”

“The federal government should be a limited partner, not a general partner,” agreed GOP Texas Governor George W. Bush, who is exploring a possible presidential bid. “If they feel like sending money back to the states, fine,” he added, “but don’t tell us how to run things.”

Some Democratic governors also spoke out against the administration’s education proposals. We don’t need the federal government “telling us what to do,” said Kentucky Governor Paul Patton.

“The White House got the almost unanimous message from the Republican and Democratic governors that you can’t bypass the states,” said Pennsylvania’s Ridge after the White House meeting. “We are prepared to be held accountable, but you have to give us maximum flexibility,” he added.

For Ventura, maximum flexibility and maximum accountability would come from not having Washington involved in education at all, taxing individuals less, and having the individual states each take care of their own education systems.