Commentary

Education in '88: The Rhetoric and the Reality

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On Sept. 11, nine candidates for the Presidency gathered at the University of North Carolina to discuss issues in education. The day produced plenty of rhetoric but few, if any, surprises. And it showed the limitations on education as an issue at the Presidential level.

The conventional wisdom is that education will be a major issue in the 1988 Presidential campaign. Economists and policy analysts agree that, if America is to be competitive in world markets, high-quality education is essential. And public education, still in trouble, needs help.

The public is convinced education is an important national issue, and the press continues to give it major play. The Phi Delta Kappan's 19th annual Gallup Poll on education, for instance, might make us think that a major federal role in education is imminent. It reports (among other findings) that an astonishing 84 percent of Americans think the federal government "should require states and local school districts to meet minimum education standards."

And if we still aren't convinced of this topic's urgency, Gov. Thomas H. Kean, Republican of New Jersey, has called for a national "Marshall Plan" for education. By all indicators, then, education should be a major issue in the coming campaign.

Already education is a central issue--along with jobs--in state races. In Mississippi, for example, the public and all eight gubernatorial candidates listed education and jobs as the most important issues facing them.

The National Governors' Association, in a rare show of determination and perseverance, has been trumpeting education reform for well over a year and promises to keep the topic on its agenda at least till 1991.

Taking seriously the rhetoric about education and economic growth, most governors have invested massive amounts of political capital in education reform. Many have even risked major tax increases. In one state after another, governors have taken such steps as raising standards for teachers, toughening requirements for a high-school diploma, tightening the curriculum, and installing career ladders for teachers. In Texas, a "no pass, no play" rule was enacted.

While governors are seizing on education as an issue, presidential candidates historically have not. Expected to become a major point of debate in 1984, education never caught fire.

The extraordinary performance at the state level in recent years gives new meaning to the old bromide that education is a local activity, a state responsibility, and a national concern. But beyond enforcing civil rights and exercising the bully pulpit, what should the federal role be?

We finally had a chance to find out what seven Democraticand two Republican candidates thought when they assembled this month in Chapel Hill, N.C., for "Education '88: A Presidential Candidates Forum."

The day's discussion proved anticlimactic.

Of the Democrats, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, while eloquent, was hazy about specifics. His one-liners pleased the crowd but lacked substance. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri had done their homework and sounded knowledgeable, but simply proposed more of the same. Mr. Biden would fund Chapter 1 increases with a defense dividend, and Mr. Gephardt proposed his oil-import surcharge as a source of funds. Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona invoked memories of Selma, and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts talked about workfare in his state.

Senator Paul Simon of Illinois conjured up the specter of Americans who cannot speak a second language, a point that resonates intellectually but has little political punch with an audience of hopeless monolinguists. The day's major gaffe occurred when Senator Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee overreached. He threatened to fire U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, sitting in the reserved seats directly in front of him. The Secretary's wife--returning to her hometown--was with him, and Mr. Gore's comments were viewed as tasteless as well as irrelevant. Was there a single member of the audience, live or televised, who thought that Mr. Gore or anyone else would keep Mr. Bennett on?

Mr. Bennett later observed that "they can trash me all they like so long as they talk about accountability and choice." And they did. All the candidates were big on accountability, and Mr. Dukakis tentatively backed choice.

The two Republicans who showed up, former Gov. Pete du Pont of Delaware and Representative Jack Kemp of New York, were reduced to debating the "empty chairs" and each other. One of the questioners, Judy Woodruff, wondered whether the small Republican turnout was a sign of the low esteem in which Republicans held education. The answer is educational only in that it's political. Vice President Bush is undeclared and as a consequence wouldn't come; Senator Robert Dole of Kansas won't show up if Mr. Bush doesn't appear (presumably he would dignify the other candidates as serious contenders if he did). Alexander M. Haig (is he really a candidate?) simply didn't show up, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, we might guess with hindsight, must have been in Iowa planning his straw-poll upset.

Mr. du Pont was the only candidate of either party to propose genuinely new ideas, new at least to national campaigns. He advanced education vouchers for elementary and secondary school and an unsubsidized national loan bank for higher education. Mr. Kemp refused to endorse government support for private schools but came on strong for magnet schools.

Most of the comments were virtually content-free. Did the forum, then, amount only to so much posturing by politicians eager for free airtime and wide exposure? After all, morethan 300 members of the press signed up for the one-day affair. While the level of coverage must certainly have gratified the candidates, the flatness of the North Carolina forum holds more significance than that. The empty rhetoric simply reveals how little there is to say about education at the national level when the important issues--teacher licensing and salaries, conditions of work, collective bargaining, and the like--are beyond Washington's reach.

The one area in which Washington excels--data collection and research--has limited political appeal. The candidate who talks about education research will stupefy even the party faithful. As important as it is, research is just not a hot political issue.

Even the hot issues are not ones a candidate is likely to pick up, because they alienate as many people as they attract. The recent Gallup Poll reports that 74 percent of the public think that the federal government should have a program of national testing and that 70 percent think the results should be reported on a school-by-school basis.

Yet, in spite of the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the federal government should establish minimum standards, only 37 percent of those questioned believe "that the federal government should have more influence in improving the local schools." Sixty-seven percent of parents think local government should. If the public appears to be sending mixed messages, it is. As a consequence, the candidates have a strong incentive to stick to rhetoric and avoid specifics.

As Governor Kean observed in the introduction to the recent nga report on education, "Those who would be president should speak to national needs in education. ... Governors should ask candidates to express the national agenda in plain terms."

At the North Carolina forum, two reform-minded governors had their chance to try to make it a national issue. Though former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina and sitting Gov. James G. Martin pushed the candidates hard, the candidates were unwilling to declare themselves. Education could have finally become a serious issue in a Presidential campaign, but it now appears that this topic will simply fade off the national radar screen.

The reason is that, from the perspective of the Presidency, it is hard to imagine what to do other than issue pious pronouncements. The problem of the budget is truly daunting: Does anyone seriously envision big new domestic spending programs in the late 80's and early 90's?

Even more to the point is the nature of the problems facing education. The kinds of changes that might produce excellence in public schools--higher standards for teachers and students, tougher graduation requirements, better textbooks, more demanding tests, better working conditions for teachers, more homework--are quintessentially state and local concerns. As in Mark Twain's famous quip about the weather, the candidates may talk about education, but they won't do much about it. If they are honest, they won't promise much either.

Vol. 7, Issue 4, Page 32

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