Clinton's two-day schools tour focuses on legacy -- and politics

White House hoping to push education and Gore to the fore

May 03, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With education at the top of the Election 2000 agenda, President Clinton embarks today on a two-day, four-state blitz to highlight the successes of his education efforts -- and to try to inoculate Vice President Al Gore against charges that the administration has done too little to improve student achievement.

The president's "education reform tour" will take Clinton to a rural elementary school in Kentucky, a rickety high school in Iowa, a pioneer charter school in Minnesota and a troubled but improving elementary school in Ohio.

All four states hold deep political significance to the vice president, either because they are key swing states or because they have been reliable Democratic states in recent elections and are flirting with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Clinton will be visiting some of the media markets where Bush aired his first political ads, which emphasized his education record.

"We certainly hope he is not politicizing the important issue of education," said Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, who joked that she was disappointed the president would not be coming to Texas to highlight Bush's efforts.

Clinton aides readily own up to the political undertones of the tour. But they insist the politics are about the president's legacy, not the vice president's White House prospects.

"This is about achieving the president's agenda," said domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. "He's not on the ballot this year, and we'd like to get as much done on school reform before we leave" as possible.

Still, administration aides concede they have been frustrated by the pronouncements coming from the Bush campaign, which they say make it sound as if the education accountability movement was hatched in Texas.

By garnering headlines, Clinton hopes to give voters the impression that many of the education reform ideas being embraced in Texas got their start long before Bush became governor in 1995. Bush has gained plaudits for Texas education reforms that stress strict academic standards and a battery of state tests that indicate improving student achievement.

"How could it not help?" one Gore aide said of Clinton's trip. "I don't think the vice president has a better ally on this than the president."

The trip seems calculated to press the point that Democrats had a hand in setting the education reform agenda. The first stop is Audubon Elementary School in Owensboro, Ky., to show how the high educational standards adopted in 1990 by a Democratic governor could turn around a high-poverty, rural school. Kentucky also is one of the few Southern states where Gore is thought to have a chance.

The next stop is Central High School in Davenport, Iowa, an aging facility where the wooden lockers are practically antiques, Reed said. Iowa is a state that the Democratic presidential candidate has carried since 1988, yet Gore trails Bush there in the most recent polls.

That is not, however, why the destination was chosen, Reed said. Iowa's Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, has led the push for federal aid to school districts needing to renovate old schools or build new ones, and Central High School will make a perfect illustration of that need, said Reed.

As is Iowa, Minnesota is a reliably Democratic state leaning toward Bush, but White House aides say Clinton's trip to the City Academy in St. Paul tomorrow has one purpose: to underscore Clinton's support for charter schools.

Such schools are public, but they are not governed by the rules and regulations of the district of which they are part. When Clinton took office, City Academy was the first and only charter school in the country. Now there are about 1,700 such schools. Finally, Clinton will go to the major battleground state of Ohio, visiting East Gate Elementary School in Columbus to highlight a district that has embraced virtually all of the administration's education priorities: after-school programs, literacy tutorials and class-size reduction.

Reed insisted yesterday, "This tour is not about taking credit."

But credit was clearly being claimed as he enumerated what he sees as the president's achievements.

Though Bush has stressed his leadership for standardized testing in Texas, Reed said, it was Clinton's 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that required states to implement assessment systems to ensure students were meeting national standards adopted for reading and math. Now, 48 states have followed through.

Two years ago, Clinton proposed increasing educational accountability by linking federal aid to student achievement.

Though Congress balked, lawmakers established last year a $134 million fund to reward achievement gains and to support public school choice.

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