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The Politics of Education, In 30 Seconds Flat

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In one of Kathleen Brown's television commercials, the Democratic candidate for governor of California assures viewers that as a former school board member, she understands education.

"As governor, I'll fight for schools," she promises.

Not long after the ad's debut this fall, the campaign of Ms. Brown's opponent, Gov. Pete Wilson, faxed reporters this response: "Kathleen Brown has as much credibility as the education candidate as Bart Simpson has as a substitute teacher."

It is campaign season again, a time when politics fills the airwaves with caricatures as crudely drawn as the cartoon family that is the focus of "The Simpsons."

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called on political candidates to address education issues substantively and shun the "slick commercial." (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

But long before the Secretary's speech, candidates across the country had aired ads that sized up the school system's woes--and promised solutions--in 30 seconds flat.

Because campaign advertising is designed mostly to stake out clear differences between candidates, education issues generally are too dense--and painted in too many shades of gray--to get much airtime, according to political experts.

"Candidates don't like to confuse people with specifics," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University.

But occasionally, an ad on education fits neatly with a campaign's communications strategy.

Candidates have used education in 1994 to demonstrate compassion, prove leadership, and launch attacks on an opponent, as the following seven examples show.

An Edge for Democrats

California: Ms. Brown has aired two commercials touting her leadership on school issues, ads that effectively tap the poll-tested beliefs of Californians--and most Americans--that Democrats are more concerned about education than Republicans, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communications and political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"She is able to cash in on those stereotypes," he said.

In two polls by the Los Angeles Times, 49 percent of those surveyed said Ms. Brown was the "best suited" of the candidates to handle education issues, compared with 28 percent who chose Governor Wilson.

Another commercial by Ms. Brown claims that Governor Wilson "cut programs for reading and schools" and "even tried to block 10,000 kids from kindergarten." Mr. Wilson's campaign responded with a statement that denies the charges and argues that Ms. Brown's tenure on the Los Angeles school board was marked by mismanagement and declining test scores.

Banking on a Lottery

Georgia: Gov. Zell Miller, the Democratic incumbent, has aired two ads on the state lottery--one citing its educational payoff and a second slamming his opponent, Republican Guy Millner, for opposing the lottery even while he invested in Las Vegas casinos.

Dice roll across the screen in the second ad and come up snake eyes as an announcer says: "Guy Millner. He wins, you lose."

The ads are part of a strategy by Governor Miller--who campaigned in 1990 for the lottery proposal--to paint himself as a politician who delivered, while portraying Mr. Millner as someone who would nix the popular lottery, according to Charles S. Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

Officials from Mr. Millner's camp pointed out that only a voter referendum can end the lottery.

"We don't want to point fingers," said Donna Pierson, Mr. Millner's press secretary, "but Zell Miller has nothing to be proud of."

Taxes and Education

Illinois: Voters loved it when 67-year-old Dawn Clark Netsch, the state's comptroller and the Democratic candidate for governor, shot pool in a primary-campaign ad. The idea was to show that she was "shooting straight" in proposing to increase state income taxes while rolling back property taxes.

When Gov. Jim Edgar said that her plan would lead to a 42 percent increase in state taxes, she returned to the pool hall.

In a current Netsch ad, her first shot aims at a rack of balls with "42 percent" on it. After she makes her last shot, the announcer says: "So much for 42 percent."

Another ad aired by Ms. Netsch flashes headlines from editorials critical of Governor Edgar's education-funding plan, including one that calls the proposal "a billion dollars worth of bogus."

Governor Edgar in turn has aired a commercial in which he tells viewers that he is seeking "reform" and "accountability" in schools. In that same commercial, an announcer attacks Ms. Netsch's funding plan, ignoring its proposed $1 billion in property-tax relief to cite only the new state taxes that would make it possible.

"He has not made this an education issue," Alan Gitelson, a professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago, remarked of Governor Edgar. "He's made it a tax issue."

Incumbents' Clout

Massachusetts and New Mexico: Two incumbents with strong education records, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have aired ads showing their legislative success.

In a departure from most quick-hit ads, one entire Bingaman spot features the senator--an early proponent of legislation promoting national education goals--discussing the importance of high academic standards. New Mexico students, Mr. Bingaman says as students on screen do lab work or listen in class, will be better able to compete nationally and globally thanks to national goals and standards.

Mr. Kennedy's ads, meanwhile, point out his accomplishments as the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee--from bringing federal research grants to state universities to playing a pivotal role in breaking a Republican filibuster on the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Both senators are in tough contests, and although education is not necessarily a hot issue, their ads may help them, observers say.

Mr. Kennedy's strategy even got a boost from President Clinton, who traveled to Massachusetts last week to sign the E.S.E.A. bill. (See "On Campaign Trail" and "Several Education-Friendly Lawmakers".)

Education, said Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, is an issue "that candidates that have accomplishments in the area are using to demonstrate how they're effective."

Republicans rarely use education in their television ads, Mr. Rothenberg said, but when they do, they talk about change.

Disputed Picture

Nebraska: In this case, education was not discussed substantively, but served as a vehicle to sound a broader campaign theme.

Rep. Peter Hoagland, D-Neb., had been trying to paint his opponent, Jon Christensen, as a right-wing extremist. So last August he aired an ad featuring a teacher who said that Mr. Christensen, in a visit to her home, said Omaha school textbooks taught "immoral values."

Mr. Christensen disputed the charge, took a polygraph test on the matter, and challenged Mr. Hoagland and the teacher to do the same. Both candidates passed their tests; the teacher has not taken one.

A spokesman for Mr. Hoagland said the ad, which is no longer on the air, helped eliminate his candidate's 11-point poll deficit.

A Christensen aide said the Hoagland camp misrepresented the challenger's support for vouchers and local control of schools.

"He's never even examined the textbooks of the Omaha school system," said Steve Thomlinson, Mr. Christensen's campaign manager.

Shoring Up a Base

Virginia: Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb has run several education ads, although he has not been a major player on education issues in the Senate.

In one ad, an announcer recites Mr. Robb's education accomplishments while he was governor, followed by a list of Senate education bills he co-sponsored. Finally, the 30-second ad notes that Mr. Robb is backed by a state teachers' union.

A spokesman for the senator said the ads reflect Mr. Robb's priorities.

But Mr. Rothenberg suggests another motive for Mr. Robb, who is locked in a tough fight with Republican Oliver L. North and an independent, J. Marshall Coleman.

In this three-way race, it is important for Mr. Robb to appeal to traditional Democrats in an effort to get them to the polls. That means touting the union endorsement even in a right-to-work state.

"It's important to Chuck Robb that the Democratic base turns out," Mr. Rothenberg said.

Editorial Intern Melanie Lasoff also contributed to this story.

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