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Dole, Clinton at Sharp Odds on Education

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President Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, enter the home stretch of the 1996 presidential campaign with starkly different visions for the future of America's schools.

Mr. Clinton and the Democrats emerged from their convention here last week calling themselves the champions of public education and the nation's teachers.

They emphasized their focus on middle-class families--the voting bloc considered the crucial electoral battleground. That strategy allows Mr. Clinton to continue his introduction of small initiatives that have widespread voter appeal--like his announcement last week of a proposed new "reading corps"--and to position himself as a check against the alleged excesses of the Republican-controlled Congress.

"I want America to build a bridge to the 21st century in which we expand opportunity through education: where computers are as much a part of the classroom as blackboards; where highly trained teachers demand peak performance from our children; where every 8-year-old can point to a book and say, 'I read it myself,'" the President told delegates.

Mr. Dole and the GOP, by comparison, used their San Diego convention two weeks earlier to denounce teachers' unions as obstacles to reform and associate themselves with the controversial idea of letting families use public dollars for private education.

By extolling a $5 billion proposal for "opportunity scholarships," government-funded vouchers that could be used to pay for private school tuition, the former Kansas senator hopes to link his education agenda to the centerpiece of his campaign--a 15 percent income-tax cut.

In the same way he sees the tax cut as liberating taxpayers to spend more of their earnings as they see fit, Mr. Dole argues that the scholarships would free poor parents to choose their children's schools--public, private, or religious.

In his acceptance speech, the GOP nominee charged Mr. Clinton with taking his marching orders on education issues from the union leadership and maintaining the status quo in the face of severe school problems.

"To the teachers' unions I say, when I am president, I will disregard your political power, for the sake of the children, the schools, and the nation," he said to a burst of applause.

"I plan to enrich your vocabulary with those words you fear--school choice, competition, opportunity scholarships--so that you will join the rest of us in accountability, while others compete with you for the commendable privilege of giving our children a real education."

Democratic Showcase

If the last three weeks are any indication, education and other children's issues have become important in the presidential campaign.

Democrats, at least, promised to showcase children's issues and education in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

In speech after speech, Democrats in Chicago either defended teachers, criticized vouchers as a threat to public education, or linked Mr. Dole to the education cuts proposed by Republicans since they won control of Congress in 1994.

"No issue more clearly defines the differences between the two major parties and their nominees than education," Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana said in his keynote speech.

Polls show that voters, particularly women, give President Clinton the advantage on education policy and children's issues. But Mr. Dole, the former Senate majority leader, served notice that he would not back down.

His iteration of the voucher proposal was warmly received by the delegates in San Diego, and debate over his blistering attack on President Clinton and the teachers' unions is still being aired in newspapers and on television news programs.

Moreover, he maintained that his tax-cut plan would benefit American families and their children more than government programs.

Kemp's Credibility

At the same time, in his surprise selection of Jack F. Kemp, the former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development and New York congressman, as his running mate, Mr. Dole found the strong voice on social issues his campaign had been lacking.

Mr. Kemp's credibility among minorities, independents, and moderate Democrats could add to the appeal of Mr. Dole's voucher proposal, Republicans said.

"You talk to anybody in the Buffalo school district about the education of inner-city kids, and they'll say he was right on the mark," said Milton Bins, the chairman of the Council of 100, a national organization of African-American Republicans that studies policy issues, and the co-chairman of an education task force for the Dole campaign.

Mr. Kemp, who, like Mr. Dole, unsuccessfully pursued the 1988 Republican nomination, has long focused on issues of urban development, and he has criticized his party for failing to reach minorities. He has pointed to school vouchers as a way to improve the economic opportunities of the inner-city poor.

"He's a guy who believes in cities," said Morris Lee, a GOP delegate from New York City. "He's worked for cities, and he's done it with respect."

Mr. Kemp's credibility, however, could be undermined by his recent retreat from two issues on which he opposed the majority of his party--his support for affirmative action and his opposition to Proposition 187, California's effort to restrict educational and other benefits for illegal immigrants. Mr. Kemp has adopted Mr. Dole's position that states should be allowed to deny children of illegal aliens a free public education.

Clinton Targets Literacy

If the selection of Mr. Kemp provided a boost of energy to the carefully scripted GOP convention in San Diego, President Clinton's four-day train trip from Huntington, W.Va., to Chicago last week provided a small measure of suspense at the elaborately staged Democratic convention.

Each day he rolled out a new initiative.

On Aug. 27, a day he devoted to discussing education, Mr. Clinton proposed a "reading corps." Although numerous details remain to be worked out, the five-year, $2.75 billion initiative would be designed to ensure that every 3rd grader knows how to read.

Citing poor levels of literacy among the nation's young people, Mr. Clinton said the program would bring long-term benefits to the nation's social and economic fabric.

"We know that students who can't read as well as they should by the 3rd grade are much less likely even to graduate from high school," Mr. Clinton said during a train stop in Wyandotte, Mich., where he made the announcement. "We know that without reading, the history books are closed, the Internet is turned off, the promise of America is much harder to reach."

Under the plan, 1 million people, including thousands of AmeriCorps national-service members, would become reading tutors. The tutors would be trained by salaried local teachers.

The reading corps is the latest in a series of mostly bite-sized initiatives that the president has either announced or endorsed in the past nine months.

The initiatives, which cost few dollars but are intended to address parents' concerns over the safety and education of their children, range from public school dress codes to new restrictions on tobacco advertising that is seen as targeting young people.

Back here, on the floor of the United Center, the site of the Democratic National Convention, the delegates spent a good deal of time reacting to Mr. Dole's voucher plan and his attack on the teachers' unions.

Unions Fight Back

Not only do the Democrats consider Mr. Dole's views on education politically unpopular--a belief that is supported by numerous polls--the party is also closely aligned with the unions. (See "NEA Reaches Out at GOP Convention," in This Week's News.)

More than 400 of the convention's 4,900 delegates and alternates belong to the National Education Association. The American Federation of Teachers provided roughly another 150 delegates.

And teachers, while admitting disagreements with Mr. Clinton over such issues as charter schools, said Mr. Dole's pointed remarks have strengthened their resolve to get the vote out for the incumbent.

"Our people are really upset," said Thomas Reece, the president of the Chicago Federation of Teachers. "I'm sure [Mr. Dole's views] are going to help teachers across the country work a little bit harder."

"It's going to mobilize our members, and I think it's going to mobilize parents," added Kay Lybeck, an alternate delegate who is the president of the Arizona Education Association.

In his remarks, Mr. Dole has tried to distinguish rank-and-file teachers--a significant proportion of whom are Republicans--from the union leadership.

But Ms. Lybeck maintained that will not work.

"We are the union. We're the same people," she said. "There's no difference in our minds or in the minds of our constituents."

Some Democrats, however, contend that Mr. Dole's underlying message--that the Democrats are unwilling to look at innovative solutions that could improve public schools--rings true.

Threads of Dissent

The Democratic Leadership Council, a Washington-based organization of centrist Democrats with past ties to President Clinton, hosted a forum here on the new management structure of the Chicago public schools. A management team named by the mayor has moved dramatically to cut through bureaucracy in a push to improve the district. (See "In Chicago, Vallas & Co. Begin 2nd Year,", Aug. 7, 1996.)

At the forum, Martin Koldyke, the chairman of the Chicago School Finance Authority, credited Republicans in the Illinois legislature for passing the measure last year that handed Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the schools.

Many liberal Democrats here, meanwhile, expressed concern that Mr. Clinton's signing of a Republican-backed bill that scraps the current welfare system had undercut the Democrats' claim to be the defenders of the nation's children.

Some conservatives in San Diego had similar misgivings about the hard line the Republicans are taking on education.

Eleanore Nissley, a delegate and state GOP committee member from Ridgewood, N.J., said the party's stands on vouchers and on educating children of illegal aliens are wrong.

"I've heard a lot of nonsense about children of immigrants," Ms. Nissley, a retired private school teacher, said of the discussion of education at the convention.

As for vouchers, she said, "I don't think the private schools need it that much, and I would not want to take money away from the public schools."

But beyond the discussions in the convention halls over the past few weeks, the actual campaign awaits.

"The platform lasts until the balloons drop," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla. "Then it's up to the candidate."

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