Gore's Support of Charters Comes From Afar
During National Charter Schools Week in early May, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas issued a statement each day highlighting a different charter school and outlining his plans to help the growing movement. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee capped the week with a stop at Vaughan Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles, at least the fifth charter school visit of his campaign.
That week, his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, talked about crime, health care, Social Security, and teacher quality. But not charter schools. In fact, Mr. Gore hasn't visited a charter school since September 1998, according to a campaign spokesman. Nor has he discussed them nearly as much as Gov. Bush has—or President Clinton, who himself visited the very first such school, started in St. Paul, Minn., during Charter Schools Week.
At least on paper, Mr. Gore is as enthusiastic as Mr. Bush about the publicly funded but largely independent schools.
Their platforms share a fundamental goal: increasing federal aid to help get more charter schools started. The Texas governor has vowed to double the number of charter schools, now nearly 1,700, by 2003; the vice president wants to triple the number by 2005.
The real contrast is in the amount of attention Mr. Gore has paid such schools on the campaign trail, leading some charter school boosters to wonder whether he would support them less vigorously as president than Mr. Bush would. They suggest the vice president may be trying to keep some distance on the issue, given that many of his constituents in the public school community, particularly the teachers' unions, view the movement warily.
While the unions do not oppose charter schools, they object to laws in some states that allow them to hire noncertified teachers and exempt the schools from collective- bargaining agreements.
"A nontrivial part of his power base is teachers' unions, and the more time he spends in charter schools, the less happy they'll be," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration.
"Visits get your picture taken, they get you on TV," he added. "Where you get photographed [symbolizes] that you value or prize something."
Vice President Gore clearly recognizes the value of symbolism in his campaign, and he has made much of his regular "School Days" visits, in which he spends an entire day at a school and stays the night at a teacher's home. ("Gore Takes Campaign Back to School," April 19, 2000.) He has made six such visits so far, including one to a regular public school during Charter Schools Week.
"It's important to note that, more than just a 'photo op' at a charter school, [the vice president] has put forward policies to help charter schools," said Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Gore campaign.
He added that Mr. Gore did talk about charter schools several days before the start of Charter Schools Week as part of a broader education speech.
"The message focus was different for that week," Mr. Cabrera said. "[Charter schools] are a part of his agenda, a very important part, but his agenda is also broader than that."
Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, pointed out that the vice president is part of an administration that has a significant record of helping charter schools. President Clinton was a major proponent of establishing the federal charter schools program, which since 1995 has provided about $400 million for charter school start-up costs, including $145 million this year.
"The vice president has to blaze his own trail," Mr. Marshall added. "He has to offer his own set of initiatives." And given his Republican opponent's attention to charters, he observed, "it is not an issue that provides a differentiation with Bush."
Even so, having charter schools on his agenda illustrates Mr. Gore's support for school choice, said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"Since he opposes vouchers, supporting charters is a middle ground that Gore can seize," Mr. Loveless said.
While Gov. Bush loves to talk about charter schools, many observers have noticed his own reticence when it comes to vouchers, which enjoy less popular support but have been a mainstay of the conservative GOP agenda. While Mr. Bush supports vouchers—his education plan would allow federal money at failing schools to be shifted to private schools or other public schools—he tends to place a greater emphasis on charters.
"Charter schools are to Al Gore as vouchers are to George Bush," said Arnold F. Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Annandale, Va. "Bush needs to give a piece to his conservatives, but it isn't the overlying message that he wants to deliver."
In fact, vouchers are the portion of Mr. Bush's education agenda that Mr. Gore has spent the most time attacking.
"[Gov. Bush] is trying to move to the middle in more ways than one ... and the middle is the charter movement," said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman., D-Conn., an advocate of charter schools.
But Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said the governor's attention to charter schools should come as no surprise. "It is an issue that he has talked about a lot over the years, not just since he started campaigning," he said.
Charter advocates note that Gov. Bush played a key role in founding the Charter School Resource Center of Texas, a business-supported nonprofit organization in San Antonio, and actively supported the 1995 state law to create charter schools and revisions in 1997 to allow more of them.
Aid for Facilities
Beyond supporting charter schools from the bully pulpit, and proposing federal financial help for them, there are limits to what a president can do to foster their growth. It's up to states to pass laws allowing charter schools, and states also set most of the ground rules for how they operate.
For most charter advocates, an increase in aid for obtaining facilities—perhaps the biggest obstacle to starting such schools—is the top item on the Washington agenda. And here, both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have unveiled policy proposals to help.
"The striking aspect is that both candidates support charter schools and appear to want to expand the federal role in backing them," said Bryan C. Hassel, the director of Public Impact, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm and an expert on charter schools. "That's much more important than the nuances [of difference] between them."
The centerpiece of Gov. Bush's plan is his proposed Charter School Homestead Fund, which would provide $3 billion in loan guarantees over two years. The money could pay for costs such as the acquisition, lease, or renovation of a facility.
Mr. Gore, meanwhile, has promised to increase spending on the existing federal charter schools program and create an "incubator" fund to help provide temporary space for the schools until they obtain permanent facilities. In addition, the vice president has reiterated the Clinton administration's plan for a major federal school construction package, which would include charter schools.
Vol. 19, Issue 40, Pages 21,23