Political Ads Turn Spotlight On Education Issues
"Isn't it absurd what some people say just to stay in Washington?"
So asks former Virginia Gov. George F. Allen in a television ad, as his wife and children flank him in what appears to be the U.S. Senate candidate's living room
"Heck, our own children attend public school," the Republican continues. "Just like you, Susan and I want them to get a quality education." Mr. Allen then points out that state spending on education increased by $2 billion during his tenure as the governor of the Old Dominion from 1994 to 1998.
The family-friendly advertisement, which aired recently, parried another schools-oriented television spot paid for by the Democratic Party of Virginia, which is backing the incumbent in the race, U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb. The Democratic ad is one of many this year produced by political parties or interest groups rather than candidates themselves.
"I've studied George Allen's record on education, and I want you to know the facts," teacher Kathryn Scruggs says in the Democratic ad. "As congressman, [Mr. Allen] supported cutting the education budget, as governor he vetoed class-size reduction, and in 1994 he proposed a budget that cut nearly $100 million from public schools."
The back and forth of competing political advertising is familiar terrain in this election season.
And education—while not the most frequent subject of such ads—is capturing plenty of television and radio airtime, thanks to this year's high-stakes congressional contests and neck-and- neck race for the White House.
The amount of money spent on political advertising this election cycle is breaking records. So far, most of it has been paid for by political parties and outside groups operating independently. Experts say individual candidates' campaigns began aggressively stepping up their advertising spending last month and will continue to spend heavily until the Nov. 7 elections.
More than $342 million had been committed or spent on "issue advertising" from January 1999 until the end of August, according to a study by the Annenberg Center on Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. From March to August alone, the study found, at least $224 million was spent on issue ads. Issue advertising is paid for with money not subject to the strict federal spending limits under existing campaign- finance law. As long as an ad is not paid for by a campaign and does not explicitly use language urging the audience to "vote for" or "elect" a certain candidate—or a few other key phrases outlined by the courts—it is considered safely outside the realm of regulated donations.
While education is certainly getting play in many campaigns, it is not one of the most common themes for the issue ads shown on television, according to the Annenberg study. The study found that health care topped the list, followed by the environment, general overviews of more than one issue, gun control, and foreign affairs.
Erika Falk, a researcher at the Annenberg Center, said it should not be surprising that education does not appear at the top of the list. "Who buys ads? Big corporations with a lot of money," she said. "Who are sponsoring the health-care ads? It's not patients."
Experts have found mixed results, meanwhile, in studying the actual effect advertising has on voters' views of candidates.
"What has been shown is that when there's a large portion of undecided voters, that kind of advertising can have the greatest impact," said Lewis Wolfson, a professor emeritus of communication at American University in Washington. "But in other circumstances, we don't know [the impact]."
The themes in many education-oriented ads echo the debates in Washington and the rhetoric of stump speeches.
A favorite topic for some Republican candidates for Congress is local control of schools. In one recent ad, John Ensign, a former Republican congressman running for the Senate from Nevada, says, "Put parents and teachers back in charge, and get Washington out of our schools." Don Stenberg, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Nebraska, promised in a recent ad that, if elected, "I'll continue my fight for safe schools and local control of education."
As for Democrats, two favorites are increasing education spending and support for smaller class sizes, a staple of President Clinton's education agenda.
An ad produced by the Kentucky Democratic Party in support of House candidate Scotty Baesler sought to draw attention to incumbent Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher's vote against the president's class-size-reduction program. "With classrooms overflowing, Fletcher voted against hiring 100,000 more teachers to reduce class sizes," the ad says. The ad also claimed that the Kentucky lawmaker voted to cut overall education spending.
But Rep. Fletcher, who represents Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, challenged some of the claims made in the ad, leading television stations in Lexington to pull it off the air.
"They blatantly lied about his education record," charged Wes Irvin, a spokesman for Mr. Fletcher.
For their part, Democrats stand behind the ad. "The ad was fully documented," said John Del Cecato, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.
Some ads are too vague to tell the public much about the issue or a candidate. For example, Democrat David Johnson, who is in a long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., includes a brief reference to education in a broad ad, saying on the topic, "I'll be a senator who fights for improving education and raising our standards."
Both the DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee have paid for some education-related ads. The Republican group has either run or is still running such ads in six districts, including ones in California, Minnesota, and Utah, said spokeswoman Marit Babin. Mr. Del Cecato said the DCCC has also placed ads, but declined to give any details.
Pieces of a 'Mosaic'
In the presidential campaign, a spate of education ads supporting Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee, have run this year.
A recent one, which claims that America faces an "education recession," has stirred considerable controversy. Paid for by the Republican National Committee, the ad begins: "America's having a recession. An education recession that's hurting our children. Our students rank last in the world in math and physics, and most 4th graders in our cities can't read. The Clinton-Gore education recession; it's failing our kids. ..."
Some education researchers were quick to challenge the validity of the charge, arguing that it misuses testing data.(See "Bush 'Education Recession' Charge Hits Nerve," Oct. 4, 2000.)
This fall's U.S. Senate race in Virginia has generated some sharply worded television advertisements that highlight education. The text below comes from two of those TV spots. In the first ad, a public school teacher offers her stinging synopsis of Republican candidate George F. Allen's education record. The ad was paid for by the Democratic Party of Virginia, which supports Mr. Allen's opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. The right quote offers Mr. Allen's response in an ad paid for by his campaign.
Education ads for Vice President Al Gore's campaign have taken an aggressive tack as well. Several months ago, a Gore ad criticized Gov. Bush's education record in Texas and used what many experts deemed to be misleading information to make the case. The ad cited the state's SAT scores as ranking 45th in the nation.
Most experts agree that data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are far more reliable for such cross-state comparisons. According to NAEP data, Texas posted some of the largest student-achievement gains in the country in the 1990s, though most of the policies credited for the gains were adopted before Mr. Bush took office.
The American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Mr. Gore for president, is seeking to weigh in on the education debate with two ads of its own that play on topics Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush recently debated. The teachers' union plans to spend $700,000 this fall to air the ads nationally on CNN, according to Gregory King, a spokesman for the AFT.
"They focus on the vital choices that face the American people in the field of education," he said.
Although neither ad expressly tells voters to support Mr. Gore, both criticize positions staked out by Mr. Bush and other Republicans. One emphasizes concerns about school vouchers, which the Texas governor supports as one remedy for failing public schools.
And back in Virginia, the advertising battle between the Allen and Robb Senate campaigns—and their political allies—is sure to continue. Not surprisingly, both candidates dispute the claims made in the ads opposing them. Their campaigns have issued press releases with detailed descriptions of their records on education.
Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia, said he was not surprised to see Mr. Allen and Mr. Robb highlighting school concerns.
"Education has been a staple [in the race]," he said. He added that, in comparison with some of the most negative advertising, the ones produced for the two campaigns are relatively mild.
"These are well within bounds," Mr. Sabato said. "They don't tell the whole story, and they talk past one another."
"I think of [political] advertising as a mosaic," he added. "Each side tells its side of the truth."
Vol. 20, Issue 6, Pages 1,32-33