GEORGE W. BUSH announced a $5 billion "Reading First" initiative one day last week at carefully staged campaign events in Illinois.
But when the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate met with reporters at day's end, reading wasn't playing in Peoria.
Reporters wanted to know about Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut plan and how many times he'd be willing to debate his Democratic opponent, Al Gore. The candidate's declaration of a "national emergency" in reading got second billing to issues deemed more urgent.
Education has always been an also-ran in partisan politics. When it does catch fire, it's usually ignited by topics such as vouchers or school prayer that deeply divide liberals and conservatives.
No candidate for office is against good education or in favor of illiteracy, which is one of the reasons it's hard to work up a sweat over education issues.
Bush and Gore think we need school reform. Their comments on the sorry state of literacy have been nearly indistinguishable for many years. Indeed, they use the same set of federal statistics - showing that seven of 10 fourth-graders in high-poverty schools can't read, for example - in their speeches and numerous school appearances.
The Republicans have a problem. They don't want to be seen as big spenders, especially in an enterprise that jealously guards "local control." Education decisions in America are made by 15,000 school boards that will spend $341 billion this year, only 10 percent of that flowing from Washington. (The Republicans recently abandoned an effort to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.)
But there are signs that education might become a hot topic in the 2000 presidential campaign. It was remarkable last week to observe a presidential candidate talking for almost a full day about reading.
Bush has a card to play here that's been in the Democrats' hand for a long time. The governor may not be an expert on foreign policy, but he's the only candidate who's been elected to a job with direct responsibility over public education.
Most observers say he's done a good job. Though Bush's state testing program has come under fire recently, Texas children have performed well in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Texas has narrowed the learning gap between white and Latino students in reading and math.
Reading is a visible priority in Texas public schools, and it has almost celebratory status in El Paso, Houston and Fort Worth.
Bush's proposals last week are based on his programs in Texas. Not surprisingly, they're not expensive. He would ask for $15 billion in new money over five years - Gore proposes spending $115 billion over 10 years - about a third of that to ensure that every child is reading by the third grade.
In Texas, Bush is using budget surpluses to train thousands of kindergarten through second-grade teachers to detect and correct reading problems early. And he's committed $200 million for summer and after-school reading programs. Last week he proposed a similar national intervention program for about 900,000 poor children.
The candidate wouldn't force states to participate, but states that draw on his Reading First fund would have to adopt a reading curriculum based on research findings of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). That means direct, explicit reading instruction. It means phonics, a word that's despised in some Democratic circles.
But the debate between phonics and "whole language" instruction won't be the contentious issue in Bush's proposal. The phonics-whole language debate quickly boils down to technicalities and statistics. Politicians and journalists regard it as so much inside baseball, and it's hard to imagine Gore posing a convincing argument against phonics in a nationally televised debate.
What Gore and the Democrats vehemently oppose is Bush's plan to provide federal grants for students in poorly performing schools to be used at other public schools or for tutoring.
It's nothing but a backdoor voucher scheme, the Democrats cry. It's a highly volatile topic.
Gore, for his part, would continue the policies of the Clinton administration.
He wants to hire 100,000 teachers and give across-the-board teacher raises in exchange for compliance with tougher state and federal standards. His teacher-friendly proposals would lower class size to 18 students for every teacher in the lower grades, 20 in high school. (Bush would leave class size decisions to state and local officials.)
So there we have it: reading as a potentially major issue in a presidential campaign for the first time in memory. Look for Bush's ads: the candidate declaring, "Now is the time to teach all our children to read and renew the promise of America's public schools." The candidate reminding us that his mother is a longtime campaigner for literacy and his wife a former librarian.
And Gore, playing to his primary supporters, arguing that reading skills will improve with better-paid teachers and lower class sizes.
So much interest is gathering this summer that Theodore Forstmann, the billionaire philanthropist, has called for a televised debate on education, pledging $500,000 to the children's charity of each candidate's choice.
Such a debate wouldn't draw the audience of "Survivor," but some might stay up late to watch in what the educator Nicholas Murray Butler called "the best half-educated country in the world."