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Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Capitol Hill Debates Reverberate in Campaigns

Capitol Hill Debates Reverberate in Campaigns

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When Senate candidate Blanche Lincoln addressed the Arkansas Education Association this past summer, her platform sounded as if it had been penned in the White House.

School construction, smaller class sizes, and barring federally funded private school vouchers should be top priorities for Congress next year, Ms. Lincoln, a Democrat and former member of the House, declared in thanking the group for its endorsement.

An hour later, her Republican opponent, Fay Boozman, stood at a lectern his campaign had plopped onto the sidewalk across the street from the AEA headquarters in Little Rock.

From there, he charged that teachers' unions and other groups were preventing the real education reforms the nation needs, such as federal block grants, school choice, and tax-free education savings accounts for parents--all concepts pushed by the congressional GOP this year.

The two candidates' education messages echo the partisan debates that resounded time and again in Washington this year. And with 469 U.S. House and Senate elections this fall, the contenders for the seat now held by retiring Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers are not alone.

"I don't think there are any original ideas out there," David Sanders, Mr. Boozman's press secretary, said in taking a swipe at the opposition's ideas. "It seems every Democrat in the country is talking about school construction and hiring teachers."

Listening to Voters

Polls this year have repeatedly shown that education is a top priority for voters, and candidates have taken note.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the government-relations director for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association, noted that many candidates have sought the NEA's endorsement in 1998. The union requires endorsed candidates to sign on to its platform, including strengthening public schools through school construction and class-size-reduction initiatives--two causes embraced by the Democratic Party and President Clinton.

The NEA had endorsed 284 candidates for the House and 29 Senate candidates as of mid-October. A total of 18 are Republicans, including some who lost in their party's primaries; the rest are Democrats, with the exception of Independent incumbent Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

Such themes are not being dictated from the top, the parties' campaign coordinators say. Instead, they say, candidates are simply listening to local voters and responding.

"I don't think our candidates are taking their cues from Washington--they're out there on the stumps talking about education," said Ron Reese, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The people are tired of the federal government mandating education for schools across the country."

But a local candidate's platform can serve as an outline for federal legislation, Mr. Reese added.

At his impromptu Little Rock press conference, Mr. Boozman, a physician and former state senator who is locked in a tight race with Ms. Lincoln, endorsed initiatives such as the proposed Dollars to the Classroom Act. That GOP-sponsored bill, which passed the House but is unlikely to go further until next year, would block-grant funding for 31 federal education programs. He also backed a plan to create tax-free savings accounts for education expenses.

His press aide, Mr. Sanders, said those initiatives show that "the elected men and women are listening to what people are saying in the states."

"There are some very good ideas in Washington," he added, voicing a rather un-Republican point of view.

In New Mexico, Republican Rep. Joe Skeen has been sharply criticized by his Democratic opponent, Shirley Baca, for backing the Dollars to the Classroom bill, as well as a plan to provide vouchers to children from poor families in Washington. "School vouchers and block grants do not build and repair schools, nor do they put more teachers in the classroom," Ms. Baca said in an Oct. 13 statement.

And in Illinois, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat, is showcasing her long-running fight for federal school construction funding in her tough battle to win a second term, while her Republican opponent, state Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, has said he wants to cut back federal involvement in education.

Avoiding the Party Line

Democrats say many of their themes this year came from candidates in education-related careers. Such candidates include Lily Eskelsen, a 6th grade teacher in Salt Lake City seeking the House seat in Utah's second congressional district and Brian Baird, a Pacific Lutheran University psychology professor running for the House in southwest Washington's third congressional district.

"We encourage campaigns to develop issues locally," said Olivia Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Some candidates are shying away from their national leaders' ideas altogether, one observer said. Nina Shokraii Rees, an education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said many local campaigns have steered away from such GOP cornerstones as vouchers, education savings accounts, and local control.

"They are talking about class size, more computers in schools, issues that make a good sound bite," she said.

How a campaign theme resonates with voters, though, depends on many variables, including the candidates themselves, the demographics of a district, and the state of the local public school system, said Molly Clatworthy, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake, Va.-based Christian Coalition.

For instance, she said, a candidate promoting school choice might fare better with voters in an impoverished area with mediocre public schools than with voters in a wealthy area that has a top-notch system.

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 22,24

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