'90s family issues point to Clinton

August 30, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

When President Bush and the Republicans talk about "family values," they speak of stay-at-home moms and fully-employed dads, unshakable middle-class morals and a 1950s suburban innocence where such touchy topics as homosexuality stayed out of sight, out of mind and most certainly out of the schools.

But if recent polls are to be trusted, the "family value" issues most important to the radically changed U.S. family of the 1990s are those where Mr. Bush seems to come up short when compared to Democratic opponent Bill Clinton -- education policy, health insurance, child-care proposals and family leave policies.

The irony hasn't been lost on advocates and policy experts in those fields, such as David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League, a non-partisan advocacy group in Washington.

Mr. Liederman said that as he watched the Republican National Convention, "I found it kind of interesting that on the one hand Marilyn Quayle is giving this speech about how she sacrificed and stayed home with her kids and did the right thing, while at the same time this administration has been forcing welfare mothers to go out to work when their child is 6 months old."

Republican strategists have already noted the problem.

Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, in assessing an apparent backlash building on the issue, told the Boston Globe last week that speeches promoting family values "have little political worth unless they are rooted in something that is concrete -- policy or the attributes of an administration."

Mr. Bush seemed to get off to a strong start in establishing such attributes after his election in 1988, particularly on education. He earned high marks by gathering the nation's governors to come up with a tough new set of national goals on schooling, and he proclaimed himself "the education president."

But not only has he failed to follow up those plans, education advocates say he has also undercut some of those goals with spending cuts and policy decisions.

Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said, "On the whole issue of family values, the thing that's galled us about Bush all along is that he has neglected his very first goal on education, which was getting the kid to school ready to learn. You can't talk about education without addressing the problems in the homes these kids are coming from, and he has cut the rug from under all that.

Critics also disparage Mr. Bush's proposal to spend $500 million to provide vouchers to low- and middle-income parents, who could use them to pay for their children's education at the school of their choice, private or public.

Not only would the plan undermine public schools, they say, but it would also provide only enough money for lesser private schools.

"With vouchers, you'd have every nutty group from the Ku Klux Klan to the Nazi Party opening their own schools, not to mention all the fast-buck artists," Mr. Horwitz said.

Mr. Horwitz's organization has also had its run-ins with Governor Clinton in Arkansas, chiefly over his successful fight to require competency tests for teachers.

"But in general we came to respect him for what he did in Arkansas. From our vantage point, there are probably three or four governors who really made education a front-burner issue in their states, and Clinton is definitely leading that pack," he said.

One thing Mr. Clinton did was raise teacher pay, lifting his state from 50th in that category to 42nd. Under his reign the state's schools have also lowered dropout rates, raised test scores and increased the percentage of graduates who have gone on to college.

The success wasn't cheap. Most of his new programs were paid for with a sales tax increase, although the state still has one of the nation's lowest per-capita tax burdens.

Mr. Clinton says that as president he would favor restoring federal aid for public schools to 1980 levels (they are now at half that level). He has also proposed new training and incentive programs for students, some of them patterned after successful Arkansas programs.

On the issue of health insurance, Mr. Clinton's edge isn't so clear, and both his proposals and those of Mr. Bush have drawn strong criticism. Most non-partisan evaluations have agreed, however, that Mr. Clinton's plan calls for more fundamental change and would stand a better chance of passing in a Democratic Congress that has already endorsed some of his ideas.

The Bush plan would give low-income families vouchers worth up to $3,750 per year to buy health insurance. Wealthier families would get tax breaks.

The Clinton plan would require businesses either to provide insurance for their employees or to contribute to a government insurance program.

Both plans have health care cost-containment measures, of which Mr. Clinton's are rated as more aggressive. But the biggest problem with both is their vagueness in saying how they would be paid for.

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