The country's two major political parties go into the fall presidential campaign after national conventions that both sought to make education a defining theme.
Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, vowed to make education the "nation's No. 1 priority" at his party's meeting, held Aug. 14-17 in Los Angeles.
Two weeks earlier, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee, emphasized the need to provide "every child" with the opportunity to learn during his speech to the GOP convention in Philadelphia, held July 31- Aug. 3.
Mr. Bush and his running mate, former Secretary of Defense and U.S. Rep. Richard B. Cheney, homed in on the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers and contended that the Clinton-Gore administration had not done enough to close that gap.
"This generation was given the gift of the best education in American history," Mr. Bush said in his nomination-acceptance speech. "Yet we do not share that gift with everyone."
Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have pledged more federal funding for education programs, including teacher-quality initiatives and special education, and tax breaks for higher education, though the price tag for Mr. Gore's proposals still far exceeds that of his Texas rival. (Mr. Gore has pledged to spend an extra $115 billion over 10 years on education initiatives; Gov. Bush would spend about $47 billion more over 10 years.) Both candidates also propose instilling more accountability into existing federal education programs.
But Democrats tried to draw a clear distinction between their views and the GOP agenda. Mr. Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, said the Republicans did not offer enough funding to hire high- quality teachers, help pay for school renovations, or make other needed improvements.
"Sometimes, it seems to me like their idea of school modernization means buying a new calendar for every school building," Sen. Lieberman quipped in his speech to the Democratic delegates.
Republican delegates approved a party platform that calls for "progressively" limiting the federal role in education, with an emphasis on providing greater flexibility and increasing school choice.
Some Republicans were quick to emphasize that the document excluded any reference to eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, as the party's platform proposed four years ago. The shift is consistent with Gov. Bush's emphasis on an active federal role in education. Even so, the document declares that education "is a state, local, and family responsibility, not a federal obligation."
The final language came after considerable debate on the platform committee. Some members sought unsuccessfully to retain the call for abolishing the Education Department.
Cheryl Williams, a delegate from Oklahoma who served on the platform committee, said she was unhappy with the final language. "The federal government does not have the authority to be in our classrooms," she said in an interview during the GOP convention.
Education was a topic at the so-called "shadow" conventions, held concurrently with the GOP and Democratic festivities.
Organized by the political commentator Arianna Huffington, a self-proclaimed "recovering Republican," the shadow conventions drew a mix of social liberals, radical reformers, and others, who spoke on a variety of issues, including poverty, campaign-finance reform, and drugs.
In Los Angeles, the author Jonathan Kozol told the shadow conventioneers that he had been "let down" by members of Congress who promised to help children in poverty.
"Most of them for years have promised much, but have produced nothing," contended Mr. Kozol, who won national attention with Death at an Early Age, his 1967 account of his stint as a teacher in Boston, and more recently has written books about the children of Mott Haven, a blighted neighborhood in New York City. "It does poor children no good to say, 'Be patient,' " Mr. Kozol said.
In Philadelphia, the author Paul Grogan argued during a panel discussion that both the Republican and Democratic parties have partial blindness when it comes to education. He said that Democrats "defend a failed system," while "Republicans are blind to the need for a very significant public investment."
More than 500 members of the two major teachers' unions were delegates or alternates to the Democratic convention, accounting for more than 10 percent of the nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates there.
The union members had a chance to cheer on their own leaders, as well as the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Both National Education Association President Bob Chase and American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman gave resounding endorsements to the Democratic nominees at the Staples Center, the site of the convention.
Members of the two unions also came together to honor another of their heroes, President Clinton, at a luncheon in Los Angeles. Mr. Chase and Ms. Feldman awarded the president honorary lifetime memberships in their unions and gave him an original drawing of the "Cat in the Hat," signed by Dr. Seuss.
The unions were much less of a presence at the Republican gathering in Philadelphia. There were, however, 42 NEA members who served either as delegates or alternates at the GOP meeting. AFT officials did not provide a count of how many, if any, of their members attended the Republican gathering.
The Democrats and the Republicans, meanwhile, aren't the only partisans trying to make a splash in education.
Patrick J. Buchanan has selected a former teacher and school administrator as his running mate on the Reform Party presidential ticket. Ezola Foster, who worked for 33 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is a staunch conservative and an outspoken critic of government involvement in schools.
"Both the Democrats and the Republican Party talk about failing schools. Well, indeed, they are failing, because of the policies of both parties," she said during the Reform Party's convention in Long Beach, Calif., last month. She pledged to "take the government out of our schools and give it back to the parents and the local community."
In a 1995 book, What's Right for All Americans, Ms. Foster also attacked what she says is the removal of religion from the classroom. "As a 30-year veteran of the public schools, I can say with some authority that taking God out of the classroom has deprived our children of a system of beliefs and stripped them of any principles by which to direct their young lives," she wrote.
During her time as an educator, Ms. Foster was a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, a joint National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliate.
Despite his selection of a running mate, Mr. Buchanan may not end up as the official Reform Party candidate. A faction of the party separately declared John Hagelin the party's nominee, and the dispute was still being sorted out last week.
—Erik W. Robelen & Joetta L. Sack
Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 46