Billionaire Theodore J. Forstmann last week invited Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush to participate in a televised campaign debate exclusively on education. He promised to donate $1 million to charity if they agree.
Mr. Forstmann, a Wall Street financier who is a co-founder and the chief executive officer of the Children's Scholarship Fund, noted that the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have both made education a high priority and said they should debate the issue publicly.
"Here, at the Children's Scholarship Fund, we are eager, as are all Americans, to hear the candidates describe their vision for American education in the depth and breadth that this debate will provide," he said at a June 14 press conference.
The Children's Scholarship Fund, created to increase students' school options, provides privately financed voucher-style grants to help low-income children attend private and religious schools.
Mr. Forstmann said that if Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore agreed to the debate, he would donate $500,000 on behalf of each candidate to the children's charity of his choice.
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the Texas governor, said late last week that campaign officials had not yet reviewed the proposal and could not commit to the proposed debate.
But, he said, "Governor Bush looks forward to debating on education this fall, particularly since education is his top domestic priority."
Jano Cabrera, a Gore spokesman, said the vice president was ready to accept and pointed out that the campaign has a standing offer to debate the governor.
"We'll do it, and we don't even need money as an incentive," he said.
Earlier this month, Vice President Gore announced proposals to improve the quality and affordability of child care as part of his recent emphasis on family issues.
The tax breaks and grants for states would total $38 billion over 10 years.
"For too many working parents, a child's early years are not years of discovery, but years of worry for parents as they struggle to find and afford safe, high-quality child care," he said during a June 6 event at a child-care center in New York City, where he was joined by his wife, Tipper, and the comedian Rosie O'Donnell.
Under Mr. Gore's plan, the existing child-care tax credit would become refundable for low- income families that have little or no tax liability. In addition, he would increase the proportion of child-care expenses that families could claim when filing their federal tax returns, raising it from 30 percent of costs to half. At the same time, Mr. Gore would offer tax relief for parents who stay at home to care for infants, and expand family leave for those working outside the home.
"No government program can ever replace the love, warmth, and support of a family," he said. "But as a society, we can make it a whole lot easier for families to be strong."
In addition to helping families with child-care costs, Mr. Gore also unveiled a proposed "Ready to Learn" fund that would provide $8 billion in grants to states over 10 years to improve the quality of care.
States that chose to participate would be required to adopt plans to improve health and safety standards in child-care centers and home-based child care. The plan would also demand that participating states set minimum training standards for child-care workers and establish early reading programs.
Mr. Sullivan, the Bush spokesman, said that the Texas governor has a strong record of supporting child care in the Lone Star State, and that his proposed $483 billion tax cut over five years would free up more money for families' child- care costs.
"We believe that Governor Bush's plan for reducing taxes on American families will mean more to those families than Mr. Gore's child-care plan," Mr. Sullivan said.
—Erik W. Robelen
Vol. 19, Issue 41, Page 35