HOUSTON--"Family values’’ was the unmistakable leitmotif of the Republican national convention.
Practically all discussion of domestic-policy issues at the gathering here last month and in the GOP platform was framed in the context of strengthening the family.
As party leaders strove to convince voters that Republicans are the friends, and Democrats the foes, of traditional families, the only education issues to receive significant discussion fit neatly into that theme: parental choice and school prayer.
In his speech accepting the party’s nomination for a second term, President Bush applauded “parents, some working two jobs with hectic schedules, who still find new ways to teach old values to steady their kids in a turbulent world.’'
“I believe in families that stick together, fathers who stick around,’' he said. “I believe in teaching our kids the difference between what’s wrong and what’s right, teaching them respect for hard work and to love their neighbors.’'
“My opponent and I both want to change the way our kids learn,’' Mr. Bush said of the Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. “He wants to change our schools a little bit; I want to change them a lot.’'
“Take the issue of whether parents should be able to choose the best school for their kids,’' he continued. “My opponent says that’s O.K., as long as the school is run by government. I say every parent and child should have a real choice of schools--public, private, or religious.’'
The President also noted that Mr. Clinton and his allies in Congress “don’t want kids to have the option of praying in school, but I do.’'
He said his educational differences with Mr. Clinton illustrate the Republican “philosophy that puts faith in the individual, not the bureaucracy.’'
Spending Cuts Promised
In a section of his speech with potential ramifications for education spending, Mr. Bush pledged to ask the new Congress next January to cut federal taxes while slicing federal spending by an equal amount.
He also proposed allowing taxpayers to earmark up to 10 percent of their federal income taxes for deficit reduction. Federal spending ceilings would have to be lowered for every dollar set aside to reduce the debt.
In the weeks following the convention, Mr. Bush refused reporters’ requests to explain how he would cut spending and taxes and how his “checkoff’’ plan would work.
While Mr. Bush’s speech emphasized his foreign-policy record, attacks on the Democratic Congress, and tax policy, other speakers repeatedly sounded the “family values’’ theme.
The party went so far as to designate the convention’s third night as “family night,’' whose highlights included speeches by Barbara Bush, Marilyn Quayle, the Rev. Pat Robertson, and former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, followed by a gathering of the entire Bush clan on the podium.
In nominating Dan Quayle for a second term as Vice President, Mr. Bennett devoted his entire speech to support of “traditional family values,’' praising Mr. Quayle for standing up to “critics in the adversary culture.’'
“We believe that families should be able to send their children to schools they choose ... schools that affirm their most deeply held convictions,’' Mr. Bennett said. “We believe that our nation’s public schools should not be doing things like handing out condoms to our children. Educators should not be allowed to usurp authority from parents in this and other sensitive areas.’'
“Remember, the child is not a ward given to the state for its nurture; the child is a gift of God given in trust to his parents,’' he said. “Schools should treat young people as gifts of God, not as subjects of social experimentation, or as young animals in heat.’'
Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander gave a brief speech at the convention after a film promoting Mr. Bush’s America 2000 education strategy. He spoke about the benefits of school choice and painted Mr. Clinton as the captive of the National Education Association.
He said Mr. Clinton had forgotten that his mother decided to move in part to allow him to attend “a better school--a private Catholic school.’'
“He forgot because teachers’ union bosses don’t like to hear about choices of schools, and Bill Clinton likes to tell people what they want to hear,’' Mr. Alexander said. “Bill Clinton sounds more like he is running for president of the NEA than President of the United States.’'
Conservatives played a prominent role throughout the convention, and their influence over the party’s platform was clear.
The document calls choice in education “the most important education goal of all,’' and endorses school prayer. It opposes school clinics that provide birth-control information and calls for sex-education programs that stress abstinence.
The platform also endorses less controversial portions of President Bush’s education agenda, such as alternative certification and merit pay for teachers, regulatory relief, and “break the mold’’ schools.
In a telephone interview after the convention, Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum, said the platform reflects a growing sentiment that parents should be responsible for choosing where their children are educated and where they receive day-care services.
Ms. Schlafly, an influential member of the platform committee, also said she was heartened by the document’s call for abstinence education and voluntary prayer in public schools.
“There are very few schools that teach premarital abstinence,’' she said. “Most schools teach, ‘Do your own thing,’ the Planned Parenthood approach--'These are all the fun things you can do and here are all the devices you can do them with.’''
Charlene Haar, a former high school teacher from South Dakota who was a G.O.P. delegate, said in a phone interview that the party had laid out “a vision that is most appropriate for improving our schools and therefore improving America.’'
Ms. Haar is challenging the incumbent Democratic Senator, Tom Daschle, in the November election. She said her election to the Senate would add “one more voice’’ in support of President Bush’s education strategy.
Support for the platform among convention-goers was not unanimous, however.
“I support a lot of [Mr. Bush’s] policies, particularly on foreign policy, and I support his economic policy to some degree, but I don’t like his choice idea,’' Dwight Story, an alternate delegate who is a retired teacher from High Point, N.C., and a member of the National Education Association, said at the convention. “It will lead to two tiers of schools.’'
Staff Writer Mark Pitsch contributed to this story.