9 Debaters Garner Mixed Reviews
Nine Presidential candidates vied here this month to portray themselves as the "education President" of the 1988 campaign.
In the first national debate among Presidential contenders to focus solely on education, candidates drew high marks from school people for raising the visibility of the issue and for their enthusiasm.
But most here agreed that the contenders have a long way to go in developing substantive proposals and articulating a clear vision of the federal role in education.
"The most important thing about the debate was that it occurred, and that nine of the candidates actually focused on education for a day,'' said John Dornan, president of the North Carolina Public School Forum.
But in a view echoed by many here, he added: "Quite frankly, I expected some of them to have some more defined initiatives."
"If there was anything disappointing to me about the day, it was that it was a wonderful cheerleading session for schools, but there was less substance than I would have expected," he said.
Sol Hurwitz, vice president of the Committee for Economic Development, offered a similarly mixed review.
"None of the candidates in either party succeeded in clearly articulating a vision of national leadership in education," he said.
"There was too much discussion of details and mechanics concerning how the schools ought to be run," Mr. Hurwitz added, "to the point where some of these gentlemen--who are Presidential candidates--talked about going into the school and talking to the principal. That is clearly not a role for Presidential leadership."
The University of North Carolina system sponsored the Sept. 11 debate, which featured separate sessions with the Democrats and the Republicans. James B. Hunt Jr., a former Democratic governor of North Carolina, moderated the morning session; Jim Martin, the state's current Republican governor, moderated the afternoon event.
The seven Democratic contenders addressed an audience of approximately 5,000 people, gathered here in the university's Dean E. Smith Center. The two Republicans--former Gov. Pete du Pont of Delaware and Representative Jack Kemp of New York--exchanged views before an audience of 2,600.
The high turnout of Democratic candidates--and the lack of a strong showing by Republicans--led to several jibes about how much the Republican party values education.
"You measure their commitment by their participation," said Bruce Babbitt, former Democratic governor of Arizona. "The Democrats believe that there is a federal role in education. The Republicans, by their absence, are saying, 'We don't believe that federal leadership is very important."'
Others who attended the forum said they were disappointed by the small turnout of Republican aspirants, but they were reluctant to read too much into it.
References to reports by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and the National Governors' Association indicated that candidates had done some homework.
But while the White House hopefuls recapitulated most of the major themes of state education reform--from raising high-school graduation requirements to improving test scores--they failed, said some informed listeners, to differentiate their role from that of the governors.
"They've heard the message, but they don't yet have Presidential answers," said Richard Mills, education aide to Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey. "It is just not enough to take the five best gubernatorial ideas, because these men are not running for governor."
"The role of an education governor has been worked out in detail," he said. "The role of an education President is being invented right now."
In what was clearly the theme of the day, Republicans and Democrats both called for greater accountability in the schools.
Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum, said the idea that federal funding should be used to encourage higher levels of school performance contains the "kernel of a new federal role in education." But that role was not clearly articulated by any candidate, he and others said.
U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett--who has made accountability the theme of his last year in office--accused the Democrats of using the word without putting much substance behind it.
And C. Emily Feistritzer, director of a private education-research firm, said that "every single one" of the candidates "could have been briefed by essentially the same people."
"I don't think there were any concrete proposals coming out of the Democrats at all," she said. "And the only reason, probably, that there were any concrete proposals coming out of the two Republicans is that they were really carrying the Bennett agenda forward on the choice issue."
Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Education Department, said that for a Presidential candidate, talking about schooling can be "awkward," because it is of national concern but is not predominantly a federal issue.
"To just talk about federal policy in education is to miss most of what's interesting and alive," he said. "On the other hand, to ignore federal policy is to ignore one of the principal forms of leverage--though not the only one--that a President has."
Handling 'Awkward' Issue
Most of the candidates said they would use the Presidency as a "bully pulpit" to improve teaching and the schools. They also called for greater parent involvement in education and for a larger federal investment in early-childhood and remedial education in particular.
All of the Democratic candidates called for increases in federal education spending--at the expense of the defense budget, said many. Both Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Senator Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee said they favored lengthening the school year--a policy matter that, Mr. Hurwitz noted, is clearly a state responsibility.
Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri proposed giving extra federal dollars to schools that improve their performance. And Senator Biden proposed giving more money to states in which a certain percentage of teachers pass the still undeveloped national-certification examinations proposed by the Carnegie Forum.
For their part, the Republicans stressed local control of education; the promotion of values and discipline in the schools; a return to "basics"; and more testing.
The subjects of performance-based pay for teachers and educational choice provoked the most heated moments of the debates.
The Democrats universally condemned tuition tax credits and federally funded vouchers in education. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts was the only Democrat to express any support for public-school choice, if it was done in a way "that doesn't resegregate our schools."
In contrast, with two hours of debate devoted solely to the two of them, the Republicans spent most of their time delineating their differences on the choice issue.
Governor du Pont repeatedly drew the conversation back to his proposal for universal choice in education: that all parents be given vouchers to use at the public or private school of their choosing.
Representative Kemp said he supported more federal funding for magnet schools and a tuition tax credit for parents. But he noted that he was against mandating the use of vouchers for public and private schooling, in part, because it would "interfere" with the nation's commitment to public education.
Christopher Hines, a 12th grader at the Vance Senior High School in Henderson, N.C., who attended the debate with about 140 of his classmates, said Mr. du Pont's ideas were "a little bit radical" for his taste.
Denis Doyle, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, commented that although the Republican introduced the only "genuinely new" idea of the day, it revealed the limits of the federal government in promoting educational excellence.
"All he can do is advise, entreat, preach, and cajole," he said.
Both Republican candidates said they strongly favored higher pay for excellent teachers and dismissal for the incompetent.
Most of the Democrats said they would support general salary raises for teachers, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he would pay more to teachers working in the "war zones" or with the most deprived children.
"There is no question that we're going to have to have outstanding teachers given much more money," said Senator Paul Simon of Illinois. But Representative Gephardt suggested the federal government first needed to invest more research in figuring out how to judge whether one teacher or a group of teachers should be paid more for good performance.
Retorted Mr. Babbitt: "I don't think we need research. We need some action."
When it was over, those attending the debate said there were no clear winners.
Secretary Bennett criticized the Democrats for failing to differentiate themselves from each other or from the positions of the National Education Association in any meaningful way. The Secretary described the Democratic session as "boring," and said contenders lacked the knowledge and "toughness" required to lead in education.
But Governor Dukakis described as "absurd" Mr. Bennett's efforts to make opposition to the nea "a litmus test for... intestinal fortitude."
Many educators applauded Mr. Jackson's rhetoric but gave him low marks on substance. And listeners from both parties suggested that the debate's real winner may have been former Governor Hunt.
Charles R. Coble, dean of the school of education at East Carolina University, noted that the format did not lend itself to in-depth discussion of any issues, particularly on the Democratic side. Candidates in each party were given two hours to debate, despite the fact that the Democrats had seven candidates, the Republicans only two.
"It doesn't bother me that nobody leaped to the fore as being the education candidate," said Mr. Tucker of Carnegie. "It's much too early for that."
"The thing to watch," said Mr. Finn, is whether candidates "include education points in their other addresses. Is this treated as a single-audience issue, or will it infuse their regular talks to groups of ordinary citizens or business leaders or other categories of people?"
Mr. Hurwitz of the CED offered a different word of caution. "It is conceivable that the next President of the United States was not even present," he said.