In bid to win control of House, Clinton plays the education card

July 22, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In this period of relative contentment with the economy, the latest polls tell us that education ranks first among voter interests and concern. So President Clinton's decision to call a White House conference on school safety should come as no surprise.

Nor should the date selected -- Oct. 15 -- cause any head-scratching. That date is about three weeks before the congressional elections, and Mr. Clinton is eager to turn around his party's long-shot chances of regaining control of the House.

With responsibility for public education continuing to rest chiefly with local and state governments, Mr. Clinton has deftly cast himself as chief counselor on a range of essentially secondary education proposals tied to greater student discipline.

In a speech to the American Federation of Teachers convention in New Orleans on Monday, Mr. Clinton said "anti-truancy efforts, student uniforms, character education, curfews . . . are not isolated initiatives. Instead, they add up to a new approach to restore discipline in our schools and order in our children's lives."

This rather mild agenda plays, however, against the backdrop of the recent much-publicized cases of random school shootings that have sparked public fears and calls for a greater federal role in education.

A new poll by the firm of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates for the nonpartisan American Association of University Women has found that 86 percent of the 600 registered women voters surveyed favor national programs to make schools safer. Equally lopsided percentages want the federal government to impose national standards for teachers and require greater focus on basic skills and equal education opportunities regardless of sex.

The Republican-backed proposal for school vouchers was not supported by most of those polled. The majority said public money should only be spent to support public schools. Some 58 percent of the Republicans surveyed took this position, as well as 72 percent of Democrats polled and 65 percent of independents.

According to the AAUW poll, 80 percent of the surveyed women said they were more likely to vote for a House candidate who supports a national investment in education, and 72 percent said they would vote against a member of Congress who had voted for eliminating the Department of Education (an old Republican goal) and cutting federal funding for schools.

The survey underscores why Mr. Clinton is elevating education to a central role in his drive to pick up the 11 seats his Democratic Party needs to regain control of the House, lost for the first time in 40 years in the 1994 congressional elections. That objective is considered reachable but unlikely right now.

In addition to teachers, the White House is also expected to invite law-enforcement officials and parent groups to the school safety conference to coincide with a National School Safety Day. Since Mr. Clinton has the White House as a pulpit, it will be hard for the Republicans to compete against the president in the competition for votes on the education issue this year, although some of the most imaginative education programs have been initiated by Republican governors in the states.

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll also found that 77 percent of 1,511 adults surveyed said that improving education was their key concern. On the general issue of education, the respondents said they trusted the Democrats to do a better job than the Republicans, by 52 percent to 33 percent.

It's small wonder that Mr. Clinton is marching at the head of this particular parade right now.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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