Bush, Gore campaigns focus on education

Differences are in details

election impact uncertain

April 02, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Last week, as George W. Bush traversed the country speaking tirelessly about academic achievement, and Vice President Al Gore disparaged the Texas governor's proposals, the first battleground of the presidential election became clear: education.

Bush served notice that he would be fighting Gore for the presidency on Democratic turf -- not just because the education issue highlights the compassionate part of the Texas governor's conservatism or appeals to suburban swing voters.

It is also the one issue that Bush feels most comfortable with and passionate about.

"They used to say in the past that Republicans can't carry the issue," Bush declared in Wisconsin. "You just watch what our campaign does."

But Gore matches Bush's zeal for education reform.

Both men have detailed plans to raise student performance. Both would spend more money and expand the power of the federal government. And both are more than willing to fight out the issue for the next seven months.

"It's a good issue in all senses of the words," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"Voters are interested in it. The candidates are talking about it, they have different views, and it could be a good basis by which people make their choices."

Gore has taken a more traditional Democratic approach, promising far more money than Bush -- $115 billion over 10 years -- while shying away from confrontation with teachers unions and education bureaucracies.

The vice president would allocate money toward school construction and repair, the creation of smaller schools with smaller classes, tax cuts for education savings, teacher training and recruitment, and near-universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Gore would also continue a "reading excellence" program launched by the Clinton administration that awards $260 million in grants each year to states to improve reading instruction. His preschool program stresses reading, too.

Standardized testing

Like Bush, Gore would push states to adopt standardized tests to ensure that students are learning. In that sense, both are on the same side of a growing debate in education, over whether a stricter reliance on standardized testing really improves education or merely narrows classroom instruction to a curriculum tailored to test-taking.

But out of deference to the teachers unions that support him, Gore has devoutly opposed vouchers, the cudgel Bush would use to force school improvement on those tests.

Instead, Gore would greatly expand after-school remediation for failing students and support a program in which failing institutions would be shut down, then reopened with new principals and retrained teachers.

William Galston, a University of Maryland public policy professor and senior Gore policy adviser, said the idea was to direct federal dollars toward solving problems that remain the responsibility mostly of states and communities.

"They are carefully crafted and targeted strategic interventions into key choke holds in the education process," Galston said.

Though Bush has sold himself as more engaged in education than most Republicans in Washington, his proposals are not simply retreads of Democratic Party proposals.

Both men stress performance accountability and standardized testing. But where Gore emphasizes new money for education, Bush emphasizes rewards for success and penalties for failure.

Bush would insist that all states incorporate standardized tests in reading and math, to be administered in grades three through eight. States that refuse to do so would lose 5 percent of their federal funding.

States would be rewarded for improvement through a $500 million incentive fund. If a school's students repeatedly fail, its federal funding for poor students -- known as Title 1 -- would be parceled out as vouchers that parents could use to pay for private school tuition.

The governor would also shift the early childhood program Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Education Department to improve instructional content.

Last week he announced support for a $2.9 billion teacher recruitment and training program and a $5 billion reading initiative to focus on early diagnosis of reading problems, teacher training in reading instructional methods, and reading-intensive after-school and summer programs.

"Bush is the first Republican I know who would actually cause the Department of Education to grow," said Chester Finn, an education expert at the Manhattan Institute and an informal Bush adviser. "He's not afraid to favor a significant federal role."

Trading criticism

Both candidates' programs have become lightning rods for criticism from the opposing camps, who engaged in an e-mail war over education last week.

Gore has argued repeatedly that Bush's promised tax cut, which could cost up to $2 trillion over 10 years, would leave no money for the governor's promised education programs and, in fact, would harm existing initiatives to hire teachers and reduce classes.

Bush advisers mock Gore as too timid to take on the teacher unions. Finn called Gore's proposals "an astonishingly banal and predictable collection of new programs and increased budgets."

Both candidates' programs might have more symbolic value than real impact, said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Of the $305 billion spent every year on elementary and secondary public education, a slender 6.6 percent comes from the federal government. That is not a large enough lever, Loveless said, to produce change.

"It's like an astronomer saying he's going to have an impact on the rings of Saturn," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.