WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH'S program is not, in itself, enough to bring about what he called, "a true renaissance in American education." As the president himself pointed out, the essential responsibility for improving the schools lies with state and local governments.
But the proposals are innovative enough and aggressive enough to be very good politics indeed. The idea of national standards and experimental approaches is an attractive one to voters who have signaled repeatedly over the last two decades that they are concerned with the quality of American education.
And in Bush's particular case, the political prize is what amounts to a talking point -- a program he can cite to neutralize the critics who insist, with good reason, that he has no domestic program and has been preoccupied with international affairs. His campaign boast that he wanted to be "the education president" may seem a little less hollow when he is running for re-election at this time next year.
The most significant element of the program is the fact that, as limited as it may be, it is directed at improving the overall quality of the elementary and secondary schools rather than, like most federal education initiatives in the past, at specific problems such as schooling for the disadvantaged or weaknesses in the teaching of science and math.
The amounts of money are not significant. Bush's proposals, most of which have a reasonable chance of congressional approval, would cost only $800 million next fiscal year when the Department of Education budget will exceed $27 billion. Most of the money would go for a program with obvious popular appeal -- establishing 535 experimental schools, at least one to a congressional district, to test new methods.
The thing for which Bush may deserve the greatest credit, however, was his choice of the man who put the program together in just a few weeks, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. In his own eight years as governor of Tennessee, Alexander learned firsthand that voters would pay higher taxes for the promise of better schools if they were assured the money would be used only for that purpose. Several other governors of relatively poor states in the South, from both parties, learned the same lesson.
The Bush initiative also is innovative in the recognition it gives to the stake of American business and industry in better schools. State governors have come to a growing realization that business decisions about where to locate depend heavily on whether the local schools are good enough to satisfy their employees' concerns as parents and to provide a work force capable of filling the jobs they create.
Not all of the Bush proposals will sail through Congress. There is certain to be formidable opposition to his proposal, one conservatives have been pushing for years, to allow parents to use tax dollars to pay for education at private and parochial schools. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, immediately warned that "the important idea of educational choice should not become a death sentence for public schools struggling to serve disadvantaged children."
But Bush has seized some high ground in the political debate. The Democrats can complain with much justification that the program is largely a compilation of ideas that have been bouncing around the education community for years. They can point out that the critical decisions are still those to be made in each school district. And they can complain -- again with some validity -- that Bush is a johnny-come-lately on the whole issue.
But the Democrats have a leadership void in making the political case on education. That is evident in the fact their leading Senate spokesman on the issue is someone as controversial as Ted Kennedy. Moreover, the opposition is clearly hampered by the fact that it has not yet produced any candidates for the presidency next year who are considered potentially serious rivals to Bush -- meaning there is no one with the stature to outline Democratic alternatives to the president's plan.
The education plan will not have much, if any, direct influence on the outcome of the 1992 elections. For one thing, it is a program that will take so long to put into effect that it will be impossible to measure results that soon. But the proposals are striking enough to make some dynamite political commercials to counter the well-founded notion that Bush isn't very interested in domestic issues.