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George Bush: 'Every One of Our Children Deserves a First-Rate School'

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New Orleans--When the Republicans gathered in this steamy, Mississippi Delta town to launch their Presidential campaign, they were eager to lay claim to what had been one of the hottest issues for Democrats in Atlanta the month before: education.

And with flowing rhetoric, a highly detailed platform plank, and a first-of-its-kind, day-long convention forum on the subject, they were able to do just that.

Emerging as the unlikely leader of this charge to pick up the better-schools vote was former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, whose memoir of the Reagan years had incensed some Administration insiders, but whose tenure had given Republicans their chief claim to leadership in the reform movement.

Mr. Bell convened the National Commission on Excellence in Education, whose 1983 report, "A Nation At Risk," has been credited with helping ignite state reform efforts.

At the education forum here, he told delegates that the party's Presidential nominee, Vice President George Bush, was sincere in his often-stated commitment to improve education.

"Every time education matters came up at Cabinet meetings," Mr. Bell recounted, "Bush was on the edge of his seat, telling Cabinet members and the President that human resources is the whole ballgame. I believe he means it when he says 'I want to be the education President."'

Changing 'Terms of Debate'

Mr. Bell and his successor, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, will lead a national coalition of educators that has been formed to campaign for the Bush-Quayle ticket this fall.

And in his address to the convention, the current Secretary sketched the broad outlines of the Republican agenda in the field.

Mr. Bennett said that eight years of Republican leadership had changed "the terms of the vital debate on education."

"Now, the debate is focused on standards and on accountability," he said. "It's on discipline, ... on learning math, history, geography, and science, and it's on mastering the English language."

The attention has shifted, the Secretary added, to "schools teaching our moral and political principles" and government "giving parents choice in deciding where their children will go to school."

"The American people expect our children to leave school as better people--better intellectually and better morally," Mr. Bennett asserted.

But all too often, he charged, such topics as "the sanctity of human life, moral standards, personal and institutional responsibility--even the Pledge of Allegiance" are the "subject of denigration or embarrassment among leaders of the Democratic Party."

Kean Credits Republicans

The convention's keynote speaker, Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, plumbed some of these same themes, devoting a significant portion of his address to education. He credited much of the continuing impetus toward reform to Republicans and singled out governors such as Robert D. Orr of Indiana and Bob Martinez of Florida as leaders in the reform movement.

"The Democratic response is always the same--spend more money," Mr. Kean said. "But, you see, Republican governors understand that money won't make a difference unless we change other things as well."

He said there should be "no more automatic passing of students from grade to grade" and that "mediocrity can never be tolerated in teaching."

"From now on," the Governor said, "hard work and creativity on the part of teachers must be rewarded every single day. And when schools fail year after year after year, let's admit it; it is the fault of the adults, not the fault of the children."

"Stop blaming the children," he said. "Let's fix the schools.

Vice President Bush, in accepting the party's nomination, touched only briefly on education but continued to draw contrasts between his approach and that of the Democrats.

"Every one of our children deserves a first-rate school," Mr. Bush said. "The liberal Democrats want power in the hands of the federal government. And I want power in the hands of parents."

He said he would "encourage merit schools, ... give more kids a head start, ... and make it easier to save for college."

New Proposals

Together, those proposals represent the candidate's only real departure from the Reagan Administration in education. And observers predict that Mr. Bush will emphasize them as he campaigns this fall.

The merit-schools plan would establish a federal recognition program with cash rewards for schools "that significantly improve education for their students."

A policy statement on education issued by the Bush campaign said that such a program would be directed to schools that serve a high number of disadvantaged students.

Under the plan, states would be able to determine the criteria by which their school's improvement would be judged. Its estimated cost is $500 million.

The party's increased emphasis on early-childhood education is reflected in the platform unveiled here, which calls for an unspecified funding increase for the Head Start program and says that a Bush Administration would "urge local school districts to recognize the value of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs."

The platform also suggests establishing a college-savings-bond program, with tax-exempt interest. Several proposals aimed at helping parents save for their children's college education are currently pending in the Congress.

Other new items in the platform this year include federal assistance to magnet schools and a vow to "protect" the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge issue--referred to in speech after speech prior to Mr. Bush's acceptance address and highlighted then when the candidate concluded by asking the delegates to recite the pledge--was occasioned by the Democratic candidate's 1977 veto of a bill in Massachusetts requiring teachers to lead their students in daily recitations of the pledge. (See related story on page 21.)

Campaign Effort

The remaining items in the platform's education plank draw on familiar Republican themes: parental choice, including vouchers and tuition tax credits; accountability; merit pay; voluntary prayer; and values education.

The document credits the Reagan-Bush Administration with rallying "our nation at risk" and spurring "neighborhood reform."

To spread that message in the fall campaign, the Bush campaign has recruited a group of nationally visible personalities in education who will fan out across the country making speeches over the next two months.

The EducationAmerica Coalition includes representatives from all levels of education, including Joe Paterno, the popular head football coach at Pennsylvania State University, and Sue Ann Thompson, a 6th-grade teacher who is the wife of Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

Jacqueline Smith, who serves as the volunteer director of the coalition, said at the day-long forum on education here that the Bush campaign hopes to establish similar coalitions in each state.

Ms. Smith said that both the national coalition and the state groups would use members of local "Educators for Bush" organizations as surrogate speakers for the Vice President on education issues.

Bell Advises Bush

The convention's education forum was the first such event held at a national Republican gathering. It drew approximately 80 delegates and visitors to a crowded hotel conference room, where they heard party leaders such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor William Brock and Governor Orr of Indiana speak on reform initiatives.

Although Secretary Bennett spoke briefly at the meeting, it was Mr. Bell who served as the group's leader. According to several observers, the former Secretary has become one of Mr. Bush's closest advisers on education issues.

A Missouri congressman spoke of the "tremendous love and respect the Bushes have for the Bells."

Of the new Republican contender and education, Mr. Bell predicted: "From my conversations with him, I know he is going to spend a great deal of time on this issue."

"I'm thrilled with the Bush candidacy," the former Cabinet officer said.

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