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Polls Confirm Key Role of Education in Political Arena

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Washington

When the Republican-controlled Congress announced a series of budget proposals early last year that included dropping many federal education programs and eliminating the Department of Education, Democrats still groggy from a midterm-election pounding craved a comeback strategy.

They commissioned a series of public opinion polls and convened focus groups to plot their next move. The research showed that voters strongly opposed cuts aimed at Medicare, the environment, and education, and the strategy was set.

Over the following months, President Clinton and leading Democrats hammered away at the GOP for proposing cuts in those programs. By this spring, the Republicans backed down.

"It has been very clear and very consistent that there's strong public support for education and strong antipathy for anyone who wants to cut education," said Mark Mellman, a pollster here who helped craft the Democrats' course. "[Education] is sort of vague at the federal level, but it's a for-it-or-against-it kind of thing. And if you're against it, you're in trouble."

Over the past decade, public opinion research has become an increasingly central part of the political process, with an often-decisive influence on policymaking, rhetoric, campaigning, and lobbying. And during the past few months, pollsters have noted the emergence of education as a critical issue on the national political landscape.

Education has long been an important concern of voters and taxpayers, but not one that drove their choices for president or members of Congress. As the bruising federal budget fight showed, however, the issue may have new clout--power that political candidates ignore at their own peril.

"In the past 18 months, education has come from some kind of sleepy, second-tier issue ... to what I would call a first-things-first position," said Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster in Lanham, Md. "Education has truly risen in many people's minds to the top of the agenda."

Vying With Crime

A poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal released in December found that the percentage of voters who wanted to see more action by Congress on education had nearly doubled, rising from a steady 13 percent or 14 percent over the past three years to 24 percent in 1995.

Education was second only to crime in that poll and made a more dramatic leap than any other issue.

Similar polls by other news organizations have also found a jump in interest. In January, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that for the first time ever in that poll, the public viewed education as its top concern, though with the poll's margin of error, education, crime, and the economy essentially finished in a dead heat.

Asked to identify the issues on which they planned to vote for president this fall, 67 percent of the respondents cited the quality of K-12 education, 66 percent named crime, and 64 percent said the economy. In 1992, the top issue was the economy. In 1994, it was crime.

Local polls have yielded similar results.

For example, a poll by the Portland Oregonian newspaper in January found education and abortion tied at 15 percent for the issue of most importance to voters prior to a special election to replace Sen. Bob Packwood.

Anxiety over the plight of schools may be making education a higher priority with voters, some observers suggest. Along with proposed federal budget cuts, the battles in states and school districts over controversial solutions--from new curriculum standards to vouchers--to school problems have given the politics of education a harder edge.

"Education, even five years ago, didn't get fought out in these partisan terms. It was like foreign policy," said Guy Molyneux, a senior researcher with Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., a Democratic consulting firm here. "Now, it's part of something bigger."

While the polls don't explain why education has become a rising national issue, poll watchers say voters believe that improving schools and making higher education more affordable are keys to a robust economy and to their children's economic future. Further, better schools could help reverse such social problems as welfare dependency and crime, and counteract the forces that lead to civic decay and family breakdown.

Better understanding public opinion on education is fast becoming a task for interest groups as well as politicians. (See story, page 28.)

Last fall, the American Association of University Women commissioned Democratic pollster Celinda Lake to conduct focus groups of women voters in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Los Angeles in an effort to gauge the issues they found most important.

"We had no idea what women would say about the issues," said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Washington-based AAUW. "Economic issues were a concern. But education, more so K-12 rather than higher education, was a primary concern and it cut across all income lines, racial lines, and among those who went to college and those who did not."

"In general, they feel where there are problems in education, they can be solved locally," she said. "But when they talk about education, they talk nationally. They used words like 'economic competitiveness' and 'global economy.' Women get the connection between education and their economic security and their children's economic security."

Democratic Edge

For the most part, it has been the Democrats--seen as more willing than Republicans to spend money on schools--who have skillfully used voters' concerns over education to their advantage.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that 40 percent of the people surveyed said they trusted the Democrats more to set education policy, while 24 percent said they trusted the Republicans more. Five months earlier, 35 percent of respondents cited the Democrats and 25 percent cited the Republicans.

The polls by news organizations and political strategists are convincing enough that a number of Democratic candidates for Congress plan to stress education issues this fall.

When Mary Landrieu announced her candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, she declared that she would make "educational opportunities for all Americans a national priority." The former state treasurer boasted of her "reforms, which generated millions of dollars for education" and voiced her belief that "education is the key to Louisiana's future [and] our nation's future."

Ms. Landrieu pledged to fight for full funding of Head Start, federal spending on computers and other technology for classrooms, and tax deductions and special savings accounts that would make college more affordable.

"A world-class education is the key to our children's future, and a well-trained and educated workforce is the key to our state and nation's economic survival," she said in a speech.

Another Democrat, former Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, who is seeking the Senate seat of retiring Republican Alan K. Simpson, chose education as a cornerstone of her platform.

In a poll she commissioned, "education jumped out as the most important issue among Wyoming voters," she said in an interview.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, Democratic Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, who is taking on Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Bill Bradley, is also making education a campaign issue.

"I just came from a focus group, and that's all they talked about: 'How can our kids get a decent high school education with all of the budget cuts? How can we pay for college with the tuition this high?'" Ron Sullivan, Mr. Torricelli's press secretary, said in an interview. "It consumed their attention more than anything else. After today, we're probably going to put education at the top, ahead of the environment."

That despite Mr. Torricelli's absence up till now from education-policymaking debates on Capitol Hill.

"As a congressman, he's duty bound to understand what his constituents are concerned about the most," Mr. Sullivan said. "He senses this growing concern over education."

GOP Approach

As former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas moves toward his party's presidential nomination, it is unclear whether he and other Republicans will make education as prominent a campaign issue as it is for the Democrats. In 1988, George Bush campaigned on a promise to be the "education president," but even GOP analysts see difficulties in seizing the education theme.

Republicans admit that they emerged from the budget battle bruised and bloodied, and that going into the 1996 elections, the Democrats have staked a claim to the issue.

"The Democrats have had such an emotional hold on education, it's hard to see Bob Dole breaking that grip," Mr. Breglio, the Republican pollster, said. "I just don't think he will."

"Education is not one of the Republican strong points," said Bill Dalbec, a researcher with Public Strategies, a Republican polling firm based in Alexandria, Va.

But Republicans say they are not prepared to concede the issue.

Mr. Dole uses education themes in his stump speeches, pointing out his support for publicly financed vouchers that would pay for children's education at their parents' choice of public, private, or parochial schools. He also backs increased local control of schools through the "parental rights" movement.

Critiquing Mr. Dole's strategy so far, Mr. Breglio said that advocating a reduction in the federal role in education is a political mistake, but that raising issues of choice and local control "turns out to be a political plus for him."

Both President Clinton and Mr. Dole have sought to use education and youth-related issues to appeal to voters concerned about values.

In recent months, Mr. Clinton has praised the Long Beach, Calif., school district for requiring its students to wear uniforms, endorsed a teen-curfew ordinance in New Orleans, and attended a rally against teenage smoking.

"That's symbolic, but it's symbolic of a problem that concerns most parents, and that is violent and disruptive behavior in school and on campus," Mr. Breglio said of Mr. Clinton's endorsement of school uniforms.

As Mr. Dole embraced the use of vouchers, he told a group of Roman Catholic journalists last month that many parents "view public schools as hostile to their own deepest values."

Pollsters, however, say it remains unclear whether school choice and vouchers will help Mr. Dole or any other Republicans pick up votes.

For several years, Republicans have tried to build an education agenda by touting a host of reforms aimed at deregulation, with vouchers as the favorite approach. But even GOP pollsters and politicians acknowledge that vouchers are a tough sell.

"The problem with vouchers is no one really knows what a voucher is. It doesn't have a positive connotation or a negative connotation," said Mr. Dalbec.

With that in mind, Republicans have begun using different terminology for vouchers. A GOP voucher plan debated last year in Congress introduced the term "scholarships." Pollsters say that word gets a better response from focus groups.

By most any name, Democratic pollsters say that vouchers have proved to be an issue that turns off undecided voters, much like the idea of making massive cuts in education.

Cashing In on Anxiety

Democrats hope that tapping into voter anxiety over how Republicans might handle education policy and funding for schools will be a deciding factor in helping them win back control of Congress and retain the White House.

And Mr. Clinton is playing on education issues more than ever before.

The president, who made education reform his calling card as governor of Arkansas, has touted high academic standards and called for tough high school exit exams--although critics noted that funds from his signature education program, Goals 2000, cannot be spent for such exams.

Earlier this month Mr. Clinton proposed a $1,500 federal income-tax credit for each of the first two years of college tuition. And he has also asked Congress to create $1,000 scholarships for the nation's top students.

"What the polls are turning up from the point of view of the Clinton administration is that education gives them a way of talking about the economy and the economic future," said Chris Arterton, the dean of the graduate school of political management at George Washington University here.

"Education is an issue that's never far from the minds of American voters," said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "But I would be surprised if it was one of the top issues for people casting their votes."

Still, as pollsters and politicians begin placing their bets on which issues will be winners this election year, many are confident that education has greater power with voters than in the past.

Mr. Mellman, the Democratic pollster, said education is one of a handful of factors that will motivate voters' decisions at the polls this fall.

"It definitely is a voting issue," he said.

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