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Dole Plugs Vouchers, Blasts Unions

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After months of little more than passing references to education, Bob Dole used a three-day campaign swing through the Midwest last month to unveil his conservative vision of school reform.

In speeches and forums in five cities, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and former Senate majority leader proposed a federally funded voucher program and hammered President Clinton as the "pliant pet" of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.

With opinion polls showing that President Clinton's stance on education is more popular with voters, Mr. Dole sent a signal that he would not concede the issue. In fact, Mr. Dole suggested that the president's education record--and the Democratic Party's traditional ties to the NEA--would not play well with voters.

"Probably no issue is as central to restoring the [American] dream as the education of our children. And few issues offer such major choices to the American people this November," Mr. Dole said in one of the speeches. "No one has spoken more fervently about saving our schools than Bill Clinton back in 1992. Yet his years in office have been the low point in American public education."

Clinton campaign officials responded that Mr. Dole, who was first elected to the Senate in 1968, after serving Nearly five terms in the House, has not focused on education during his political career.

"Bob Dole is trying to cover up the fact that he supported the most anti-education budget along with [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich last year," said Clinton campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart.

"I found it somewhat startling that Bob Dole has, at this late date, discovered that education is a part of his economic program," Mr. Lockhart said. "If Bob Dole wants to join this campaign on the issue of education, we'll debate him every day. We'll debate him in the mornings, in the afternoons, and in the evenings, every day."

Sustained Message?

Mr. Dole is slated to receive the Republican presidential nomination at his party's national convention in San Diego next week.

Whether he will sustain his pro-voucher, anti-NEA message--and whether it resonates with voters--remains unclear.

Officials from the Dole campaign did not return repeated phone calls or respond to a list of questions about Mr. Dole's speeches.

Conservatives who have advised Mr. Dole's campaign suggest that by pushing for vouchers, the Republican candidate can gain support from inner-city minorities, Roman Catholics, and ethnic whites.

Some observers were pleased to see Mr. Dole stake out his ground on school issues.

"This is the first we've seen this campaign go on the offensive," said Allyson M. Tucker, the Washington director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative group that studies education and entertainment issues. "If Dole keeps this up, he can win the election."

'Opportunity Scholarships'

Under Mr. Dole's voucher demonstration project, which he dubbed "opportunity scholarships," the federal government would provide $10 billion in competitive matching grants to 15 states and the District of Columbia over four years.

States would set income-eligibility thresholds for parents and set the amount of each scholarship--at least $1,000 for each elementary school student and at least $1,500 for older children. Campaign officials project that 4 million children would be served by the program.

Parents could use the vouchers to offset tuition or other educational costs at any school, including private institutions with religious backing.

The Dole plan seeks to pay for the demonstration by eliminating the Clinton administration's signature education program, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Money would also come from trimming salaries and expenses at the Department of Education and program reductions and eliminations already proposed by Mr. Clinton.

But in the administration's proposed fiscal 1997 budget, those items add up to just $1.4 billion, including all of the $446 million in proposed administrative spending for the department--well short of the projected $2.5 billion price tag.

But coming up with money may not be the campaign's first problem with the voucher program. Some observers argue that creating a new federal program is at odds with conservative beliefs--including those expressed by Mr. Dole during the primaries--that the federal government should remove itself from education policy altogether.

"It does propose a dilemma. We strongly encourage local control," said Perry Glanzer, an education-policy analyst for Focus on the Family, a conservative group based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "For those of our constituents who want to protect the integrity of local control and private schools, they fear the involvement of the federal government. Federal money might involve federal regulations."

Targeting the NEA

Conservative observers are much more unanimous in their support of Mr. Dole's swipes at the NEA, which they see as a champion of liberal causes and a roadblock to school reform.

"George Bush mouthed the words of school reform. I don't think anyone, liberal or conservative, was too happy with George Bush on education," said John Berthoud, the vice president of the Alexis de Toqueville Institution, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va., that has emerged as a critic of the NEA. "By going after the unions, Dole's rhetoric on vouchers and real reforms may amount to something."

Mary-Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the 2.2 million-member union, acknowledged its longstanding ties to Democrats.

Since 1976, when the union began endorsing presidential candidates, the group has never backed a Republican for president. In 1992 and 1994, the NEA donated more than $525,000 to the Democratic National Committee. A "minimal contribution, if anything," went to the Republicans, Ms. Teasley said.

But the union's ties have changed, at least a little, in part because of the unexpected Republican victories in the 1994 elections. New Republican majorities in many states left state affiliates feeling vulnerable.

As of late last month, the NEA had endorsed 251 Congressional candidates--all of them Democrats.

Still, union officials say they are making overtures to Republicans, particularly at the state level. (See "Polls Confirm Key Role of Education in Political Arena," June 19, 1996.)

But even as the union takes small steps toward bipartisanship, it remains an inviting target for Mr. Dole.

"I don't know how much longer he can continue to attack us given our relationship with the Republican side," Ms. Teasley said. "I don't know what to expect."

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