ROCKVILLE -- Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton drew sharply contrasting pictures yesterday of the educational system that he said America needs to ensure economic vitality and the failed system that he said Republicans have produced over the last 12 years.
In an amphitheater brimming with boisterous supporters, Mr. Clinton said President Bush is correct when he says that Americans have a clear choice this year between fundamentally different approaches to government.
"The philosophy of this administration is to make the economy grow by putting more and more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. My belief about the way to make the economy grow is to invest in people, in our children," he said.
The Democrat offered his critique in at appearance at Montgomery College during his first campaign swing through Maryland. He spoke from a podium decorated with a bouquet of brilliant black-eyed Susans.
As Mr. Clinton was speaking, Mr. Bush's education secretary, Lamar Alexander, was touring two Baltimore public schools and lauding them for innovations that parallel the Bush administration's own education goals.
Mr. Alexander repeated the administration's call for a voucher system that would give low- and middle-income parents credits of up to $1,000 to spend at any school of their choice, public or private.
Mr. Clinton did not include the administration's voucher proposal in his bill of particulars. He favors parental choice but only within the public school system. He would not extend it to private schools as would Mr. Bush's plan.
Nothing in the Bush record got more than the lowest marks from Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Clinton said that America must see the relationship between education and economic development for individuals and for the country.
Other industrialized nations, he said, spend far more developing the skills of workers than does the United States.
Most Americans are "struggling to deal with cutbacks, struggling to make the American Dream real for themselves, struggling to rebuild their communities," Mr. Clinton said.
The struggle is exacerbated, he said, because budget cuts mean that schools such as the community college where he was speaking have been forced to limit enrollment.
Without training after high school, he said, workers can look forward to jobs that produce declining incomes. More education adds up to more income -- an assertion that the candidate said is illustrated by data collected during the 1990 Census. Mr. Clinton said that Americans' struggle is further extended by a 2 percent drop in real income in 1991, the worst performance in 30 years "even though [Americans] worked more hours."
At the same time, he said, the Bush administration is proposing tax cuts to be paid for with budget cuts that would be announced after the election.
"Trust us" is what the administration says, Mr. Clinton said, to the groans of his audience.
Mr. Clinton said that world economic markets had reacted negatively to the idea of a tax cut when the United States faces such a large deficit. During last winter's primary, Mr. Clinton had proposed a tax cut for the middle class that would have been paid for with higher taxes on the wealthy. He has since backed away from that proposal.
Unless there is fundamental change in the government, Mr. Clinton said yesterday, "we will all fall farther behind" -- a prospect that seems to be on the minds of many Marylanders. In a poll released Tuesday, 58 percent of respondents said the issue that matters most to them this year is the economy.
Mr. Clinton said that the United States continues to spend less on education, particularly for kindergarten through the 12th grade, than do its economic competitors.
Mr. Alexander issued a statement later in the day saying that Mr. Clinton "continues to play fast and loose with the facts." He said the Democrat was wrong in suggesting that President Bush had "cut access to higher education."
Mr. Clinton actually said America does spend more on higher education than do its competitors -- but it spends the money inefficiently and in ways that sometimes do not help the intended beneficiaries -- the students. He also said that Mr. Bush would have cut college grants to 400,000 low-income students had Congress not blocked him. Mr. Alexander did not dispute that contention.
Mr. Clinton said the difference between America's current approach to education and the approach of its competitors is "startling." Germany and Japan, he said, "invest more in education. They invest more in continuous training. . . . They invest more in human beings. That is their strategy."
"That is my strategy for America," the candidate said to loud cheering.
American workers spend 2 percent of their time in retraining compared with 10 percent by Germans and Japanese. In the United States today, Mr. Clinton said, 70 percent of the retraining money is spent on top management. He proposed offering businesses the option of retraining all their workers or paying into a government-operated trust fund that would be used to retrain workers.
The candidate also proposed:
* Full funding of the preschool program Head Start.
* A partnership of federal and state governments that would guarantee a system of skills-training facilities throughout the country.
* Combining the best of the old GI Bill and the Peace Corps to provide financing for education. Recipients could repay the money by working in low-wage public service jobs. If the recipients took regular jobs, repayment would be based on income.