Democratic Candidates Sounding Common Themes on Education
All five major Democratic Presidential candidates have acknowledged the importance of education, particularly as an essential part of any strategy to bring the nation out of its economic doldrums. Most of them also have criticized President Bush at least once for what they see as his failure to live up to his promise to be the "education President."
But while each of the candidates has at least one education proposal in his platform, none has made it the centerpiece of his campaign. And only two of the five--Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa--have compiled significant records on education issues during their careers.
Mr. Clinton's national reputation rests substantially on his efforts in education, both in enacting a wide ranging reform agenda in Arkansas and in his leadership on education issues within the National Governors' Association. ('See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)
The two other candidates who have served as governors--Jerry Brown of California and Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska--were viewed as generally supportive by educators in their states, but did not emphasize education during their tenure.
Likewise, Mr. Harkin is alone among the candidates who have served in the Congress in having chosen education as a legislative specialty. While he was known primarily for his work on agriculture and international human-rights issues during his 10 years in the House, he took a seat on the Labor and Human Resources Committee when he moved to the Senate in 1984.
Mr. Harkin is currently chairman of both the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending and the Subcommittee on Disability Policy.
Senator Kerrey, by contrast, has been known primarily for his legislative work in agriculture, while former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts focused on foreign affairs during his Congressional service.
All three of the Congressional candidates have received generally favorable ratings in voting studies by the National Education Association. So have a substantial number of other members of the Congress, however, since education-related floor votes are usually votes on budgetary issues or lopsided, noncontroversial votes on final passage of legislation. All three, but particularly Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Kerrey, have earned black marks from the union by voting against at least some increases in education spending.
All the Democratic candidates have said during the campaign that more federal money should be spent on education, and specifically that Head Start should be available to every eligible child. They also agree on increases for child-health programs and on initiatives to help families, such as parental leave.
And all but Mr. Tsongas flatly oppose allowing parents to use public money to send their children to private schools, a cornerstone of President Bush's education agenda.
In other respects, though, the candidates' agendas differ in important ways.
Jerry Brown Mr. Brown revealed much of his education platform in an address to the Boys Club of Nashua, N.H., last month.
Mr. Brown said education improvements lie at the heart of an overall economic-revitalization effort that is a theme of his long-shot campaign, which also has focused on the need to reform government and politics.
"You can have all sorts of school reform, but if you don't come to grips with the growing number of single- parent families with inadequate incomes living in gang- and crack-\infested neighborhoods, most school reforms will fail ,. he said. "They just won't do the job."
Inside the classroom, he said, the federal government should concentrate on research and experimental programs.
"In school reform, the only thing the federal government should be doing is innovating, showing the way, serving as a model and an example," he said in the New Hampshire speech. "If the federal government devoted the same amount of effort that it does for military software and technology to education software and technology, I believe you could create a very exciting, interesting learning environment for every single child in America, accessible by that child in his or her learning pattern, language, and background."
In the most recent televised debate between Democratic candidates last month, Mr. Brown suggested that the Congress reverse a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that states are not constitutionally required to equalize spending among school districts.
During his tenure as California Governor, state spending on elementary and secondary schools rose from $2.6 billion to $7.9 billion. In addition to presiding over the state's efforts to equalize school funding, Mr. Brown also lists boosting high- school-graduation requirements, a $10-million teacher-training pro- gram, and more than doubling funding for special-needs students as highlights of his administration.
Mr. Brown also wants to reduce dependence on loans in student-aid programs. Calling for restored work-study efforts and scholarships, he said the government should place loan programs on a back burner and stop "making a whole new class of debtors out of college graduates."
Mr. Clinton was not well-known nationally when he launched his bid last year, but he is a familiar face in education circles, having won a reputation as one of the nation's premier "education governors."
In his 11 years as Governor of Arkansas, he has dramatically increased state spending on education and persuaded the legislature to enact a long list of reforms, including curricular standards, an open-enrollment policy, a novel apprenticeship program, universal student testing, scholarship programs, a preschool program that has become a national model, and a controversial teacher-competency test.
While critics charge that achievement gains have been less than overwhelming, both local educators and national observers give Mr. Clinton's efforts high marks.
On the national level, Mr. Clinton has been a leader in the National Governors' Association's education reform projects. Most notably, he was the lead negotiator for the governors throughout the process of drafting national education goals.
Mr. Clinton's campaign has emphasized the need for a national economic policy in which education is a key element. His major education proposals include an apprenticeship program similar to the one he established in Arkansas, a massive effort in adult education, and a new college-loan program. Under that proposal, every student would be eligible for a loan, which could be repaid either through payroll deductions or with two years of community service.
Mr. Harkin has projected himself as an unabashed liberal who supports a "new New Deal" to stimulate the economy and large increases in spending on federal education programs.
That emphasis befits his experience in the Congress, where he is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that doles out funds for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. In his tenure as chairman of the panel, Mr. Harkin has stressed support for health and preschool programs.
Mr. Harkin has pledged to increase federal support for programs "that recognize that education begins at birth, and that preparation for education begins even before birth."
In the most recent debate, Mr. Harkin said that federal, state, and local governments should each pay one-third of the cost of education, an idea that has been a dream of many education advocates for decades.
Currently, the federal government pays about 6 percent of the tab, down from 11 percent in 1980.
Mr. Harkin also said in the debate that he would "guarantee no class size over 25, anywhere in the nation."
Mr. Harkin has proposed funding his efforts, in part, by redirecting money now spent on defense.
But while Mr. Harkin takes credit in his campaign for his efforts to increase education spending, and has received an award from the Committee for Education Funding, education advocates were not cheering in his corner during last year's budget battles.
The Iowan sought then to increase spending on health programs at the expense of education programs, which had received a high priority in the House budget bill. He also alarmed education lobbyists by suggesting that increased spending on early-intervention programs would make it possible to spend less on remedial education for older children.
"That emphasis on intervention and prevention is too narrow for most educators," said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.
"The problems don't end there," said Mr. Kealy, who was the C.E.F. president last year.
Although Mr. Harkin now opposes including private schools in choice plans, he has received negative marks from public-education advocates for past votes in favor of tax credits for private-school tuition and for the Equal Access Act, the 1983 law that required schools to allow religions student groups to use school facilities.
The senator is viewed as a strong advocate for disabled children by special-education advocates, however.
As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability, Mr. Harkin was a primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended civil-rights protections for the disabled.
Joseph Ballard, the director of governmental relations for the Council for Exceptional Children, said Mr. Harkin also has been instrumental in getting the Congress to spend more on special education.
"He is beyond simply doing his duty," Mr. Ballard said. "This is one of the most caring men I have ever seen in terms of his sensitivity to the needs of vulnerable children in our society."
Mr. Kerrey has based his campaign on his proposal for universal access to health care and his appeal as a Vietnam War hero.
According to his campaign officials, Mr. Kerrey cites his legislative proposal for an billion-dollar capital fund as his most important education initiative. Under this measure, states would apply for grants for reform efforts.
The fund would be financed by a temporary increase of 0.15 percent in the corporate-income tax.
In the previous Congress, Mr. Kerrey introduced a measure to allow schools and school districts to apply for restructuring grants. In praising the Democratic alternative to President Bush's education package passed by the Senate last month, Mr. Kerrey said the current bill, which would provide block grants for local-option reforms, is "linked in concept" to his earlier proposal.
He said he favors offering "long-term assistance"to schools pursuing "systemic reform."
"Federal officials and politicians should not be trying to favor one reform strategy over another," Mr. Kerrey said. "Rather, we should go to the local communities and offer to work with them on their solutions."
Mr. Kerrey has also proposed eliminating several Cabinet-level agencies, including the Education Department, which would be folded into a department of human services.
"If you fund [reform] through the U.S. Department of Education, you will only get more of the same," Mr. Kerrey said in the recent debate.
As Governor of Nebraska, Mr. Kerrey actively supported a 1984 education-reform bill that resulted in increased high-school-graduation requirements, a longer school year, and outcome-based accreditation standards for Nebraska schools.
Some programs included in the bill, such as a mentor-teacher program, were never launched because the legislature did not appropriate sufficient funds.
Mr. Kerrey served one term as Governor, from 1983 through 1987. He ran for the Senate in 1988 after the death of Senator Edward Zorinsky.
James Rea, the president of the Nebraska Education Association, said Mr. Kerrey "raised the consciousness of Nebraskans that we have to reform and restructure schools."
Paul E. Tsongas
For several months last year, Mr. Tsongas was the only declared Democratic candidate. At least in terms of emphasis, his campaign themes have also set him apart from his rivals for the nomination.
These include his focus on a "probusiness" agenda, his insistence that Japanese trade barriers are not at the root of the nation's economic woes, his warnings that the federal budget cannot accommodate every popular proposal, and his support for allowing private schools to compote against public schools for tax dollars.
Mr. Tsongas, who served in the House for four years before moving to the Senate in 1978, voted against tuition tax credits in both chambers. But he now advocates experimenting with all sorts of concepts, including choice.
"A Call to Economic Arms," the booklet on which Mr. Tsongas' campaign is based, focuses primarily on economic strategies, but also discusses the role of schools.
The controversial ideas he proposes experimenting with include not only choice, but also merit pay, teacher-competency standards, national testing of high-school seniors, magnet schools for black males, limits on bilingual education, and school-based management.
"Let's criticize bold ideas after they have been found to be flawed, not before they are tested," he writes.
The former senator also contends that the business community has not become sufficiently involved in the movement to reform schools.
Parents and the public also must play a large role, he states. Parents need to learn about different teaching philosophies, be able to evaluate principals, and nurture children other than their own.
Mr. Tsongas also has sought to differentiate himself from the other Democratic candidates on the issue of federal education spending.
"He believes we really need to spend more money on education," said Steve Cohen, his issues director. "You can make all sorts of structural changes ... but ultimately you've got to put more money in or these things are not going to amount to anything."
Even so, while Mr. Tsongas advocates increased spending on some programs--notably Head Start, child nutrition, training for mathematics and science teachers, adult literacy, and skills training for noncollege-bound youths--he faults the Democrats for trying to throw money at education nearly as much as he faults the Republicans for their failure to fund it.
In last month's debate, Mr. Tsongas scolded his colleagues for supporting unrealistic increases in education spending, asking: "Where's the money going to come from?"
The federal share of the education tab should be returned to 1980 levels, he said, "but there's not money without economic growth."
Information for this story was gathered by Staff Writers Karen Diegmueller, Ellen Flax, Lonnie Harp, Mark Pitsch, and Peter Schmidt.