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GOP Hopefuls Of One Mind On Education

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Washington

As Republican voters begin the process of choosing a presidential nominee, the nine announced GOP candidates have squabbled over who has the strongest conservative credentials, superior leadership qualities, and the most appealing economic plan. But they have quietly come to near-unanimity on education issues.

As the primary season gets under way this week with the Louisiana caucuses, the GOP candidates seem to agree on what needs to be done to improve education. For example, they all support some form of prayer in public schools, and endorse programs that would use public funds to help parents send their children to the schools of their choice, including private and religious schools. Television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan has even suggested voluntary religious instruction in public schools.

And eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, along with greatly curtailing the federal role in schools, is the most prominent education plank in each candidate's platform. That position embodies the Republicans' call for returning decisionmaking power on a host of domestic issues to state and local governments.

"We don't want one-size-fits-all. Let's get rid of the Department of Education. That is the model message of every single one of them," said Jim Hirni, a research assistant at the Center on Educational Law and Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hirni and others point out that none of the GOP candidates has emphasized an education message--not even former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who was also heavily involved in education issues when he was the governor of Tennessee.

A Clinton Issue

By contrast, if last month's State of the Union Address is any indication, President Clinton is poised to woo voters by extolling his education record. (See related stories, 11/29/95 and 1/31/96.)

"Education has been a constant theme of his presidency," Ann Lewis, the deputy manager of the Clinton-Gore campaign and a longtime liberal activist, said in an interview. "It's interwoven into everything we do."

The bottom line, observers say, is that Mr. Clinton, who faces no primary opposition, and the Republican contenders could not have more divergent education agendas.

"Education is one of the issues where there is a clear contrast between the president and the Republican candidates," said Allyson M. Tucker, the director of the Individual Rights Foundation of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative Los Angeles-based think tank focused on education and entertainment. Ms. Tucker formerly headed the Heritage Foundation's education center.

The primary season was set to begin Feb. 6 with the upstart Louisiana caucuses. But because that vote aimed to steal the thunder of Iowa's usual first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 13 and New Hampshire's traditional first primary on Feb. 20, only Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Mr. Buchanan, and Alan Keyes, a radio talk-show host and former diplomat, are campaigning there.

The conventional wisdom has Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas leading the GOP pack but being pushed hard by publisher and political neophyte Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California, and businessman Maurice "Morry" Taylor Jr., as well as Mr. Alexander, are also seeking the Republican nomination.

Little Said

For the past several months, the Republican hopefuls have been crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire, casting for votes. Educators in those key states, however, say the candidates have been saying little about education.

Mostly, they say, the candidates refer to the need for local control over education or the need for education cuts to balance the federal budget, or they argue that like some other federal agencies, the bureaucracy of the Education Department should be choked off.

"Education comes into play when they talk about the budget issue because of the cuts," said Eugene Ross, the interim superintendent of three school districts near Manchester, N.H.

When Mr. Ross went to a candidates' forum and asked for the candidates' education agendas, they "skirted the issue," he said.

"They haven't given any concrete or factual information about how to fix the problems they seem to identify," Mr. Ross said. "They seem to be cutting things and don't have an answer as to how to carry out an improvement program."

In Iowa, Joseph Scalzo, the superintendent of the Ottumwa school district, hasn't heard much about education, either.

On occasion, he said, Mr. Buchanan or Mr. Keyes will express support for vouchers or blame the public schools for what they see as a decline in America's values.

Voter Concern

The observations of Mr. Scalzo and Mr. Ross are consistent with those of academic observers and political advocates.

Antonia D'Onofrio, an associate professor of education at Widener University in Chester, Pa., said that Mr. Alexander is the only GOP candidate with the background to support a comprehensive education agenda.

However, Ms. D'Onofrio said, the conservative tenor of the primary debate, in which such issues as inculcating moral values and making English the official U.S. language have become linked to education policy, has not given Mr. Alexander a forum where it would be advantageous to present his education accomplishments.

Mr. Hirni of the Heritage Foundation agreed that none of the GOP candidates has sought to make education a defining issue.

Citing a recent Gallup Poll in which voters for the first time cited education as their top concern in a presidential election, Mr. Hirni said he fears Mr. Clinton will have an advantage over the eventual Republican nominee. The GOP nominee, he said, may be put in a position of rebutting the president rather than offering his own ideas.

"Education is a reactionary issue for the Republicans. It's a shame because the president will capitalize on education every time he can and the Republicans will be reactive," Mr. Hirni said.

Track Record

Indeed, President Clinton has stressed education issues throughout his presidency. Some of his top early priorities were enacting the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and the AmeriCorps national-service program and launching direct lending for college loans.

Since January 1995, when Republicans grabbed the reins of Congress, Mr. Clinton has made a point of vowing that he would not sacrifice education spending to reach a balanced budget--the goal that Republicans made the centerpiece of their legislative program.

And with his latest State of the Union Address, Mr. Clinton fired an opening education shot in his bid for re-election. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)

Possibly in an effort to blunt future Republican attacks, he made a point of endorsing parental choice among public schools, uniforms for public school students, charter schools, and character education--all issues that observers say are likely to appeal to most voters, liberal or conservative.

Mr. Clinton also proposed federal aid for educational technology and federally funded college scholarships of $1,000 to the top 5 percent of students in each U.S. high school. Republicans said he had stolen the latter idea from Mr. Alexander, who proposed a special Pell Grant fund for top students when he was President Bush's secretary of education. It was enacted in 1992, but Congress has never funded the program, which would have allowed states to make grants to high-achieving students who also met the low-income criteria for Pell Grants.

Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin professor and a nonresident senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington, said he does not doubt the sincerity of President Clinton's commitment to education. But, he added, "politically, [education is] central to him as a centrist opposing the Republicans."

In the speech to Congress, Mr. Clinton also singled out two of his initiatives that have been on the GOP hit list: Goals 2000, which offers school-reform grants to states and school districts that agree to set high academic standards, and direct lending, in which the government makes loans to college students through their institutions, bypassing private lenders.

Ms. Lewis of the Clinton campaign said the issues Mr. Clinton highlighted in his speech were a preview of one of his central campaign themes.

"The theme is education for the 21st century," Ms. Lewis said.

This week, the president plans to give a major education address here at a meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. And first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is to speak here this week at a legislative conference of the National School Boards Association.

Mr. Clinton is also expected to announce soon the details of his school technology initiative.

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