Declaring education the nation’s “number-one priority,” Vice President Al Gore officially accepted the Democratic nomination for president here last night.
Mr. Gore vowed that, if elected, he would pursue measures to rebuild crumbling schools, hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay and professionalism, give families more tax breaks for college tuition, and provide high-quality preschool for all children in the United States.
“Education may be a local responsibility, but I believe it has to be our number-one priority,” he said to the chants and cheers of attendees gathered here at the Staples Center for his acceptance speech, the highlight of the four-day convention. “We can’t stop until every school in America is a good place to get a good education.”
The speech was met with enthusiasm by the audience, which chanted “Go, Al, go” after his litany of education proposals, and by teacher delegates interviewed later.
“We in the [National Education Association] have known that he was right on the education issues,” said Gregory S. Nash, the president of NEA-New York, a state affiliate of the union. “Tonight, the nation knows.”
“He came back to education more than once—that shows me that these issues aren’t just educators’ issues,” said Lee Ann Prielipp, the president of the Washington Education Association, another NEA affiliate. “Every time education was mentioned, everyone in my delegation jumped up.”
Mr. Gore also declared that, as president, he would further crack down on the marketing of tobacco products to young people and undertake measures to keep drugs and guns out of schools.
“I will fight to make every school in the nation gun-free and drug-free,” he said. “Parents deserve the simple security of knowing that their children are safe, whether they’re walking down the street, surfing the World Wide Web, or sitting behind a desk in school.”
The vice president also promised to make universal health-care coverage a priority, with an intermediate goal of making sure every child has health insurance by 2004.
Throughout the week, Democrats have tried to convey a message of hope and optimism, while shooting down the education proposals of the Republican presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who has strongly emphasized school issues throughout his tenure as governor and during the current campaign.
The claims by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Mr. Gore’s vice presidential running mate, and other Democrats this week that Mr. Bush’s education plan does not include enough money to help schools meet high standards have been disputed by the GOP. In a statement released shortly after Mr. Lieberman’s convention speech Wednesday night, the Bush campaign sought to refute the Connecticut senator’s charges that Republicans would not invest in teacher salaries. It also said Texas had achieved much better results in closing the minority achievement gap than the rest of the nation had.
Gov. Bush’s campaign pointed out that, under his watch, the Texas legislature has approved new spending for school construction and $3,000 pay increases for all teachers.
The governor and his running mate, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, plan to kick off a two-week “education tour” this weekend in Las Cruces, N.M.
Arizona state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, who traveled to Los Angeles to convey the Republicans’ message on education during the Democratic National Convention, said the Democrats had done a good job of talking about standards and accountability. But their ties to the teachers’ unions, she argued, would prevent them from undertaking the types of reforms that are needed in federal programs.
“It’s something to talk about standards, but Republicans say, ‘We want to use those in a meaningful way,’ ” she said.
Praise From Supporters
But speakers appearing here in support of Vice President Gore had nothing but praise for the Gore-Lieberman ticket’s commitment to education issues. Sen. John Breaux, D- La., said, “Joe Lieberman and Al Gore will make schools accountable for results, give schools the flexibility and resources to achieve these results, grant parents more choice in public schools, and get teachers the tools they need to educate our children.”
Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in her speech to the delegates Thursday afternoon, “Al Gore and Joe Lieberman will keep progress going through the common-sense investments and policies that are turning our schools around.”
In the wake of much publicity about Sen. Lieberman’s support for experiments with tuition vouchers for poor children, Vice President Gore in his acceptance speech left no doubt about his position on vouchers, which are adamantly opposed by the unions and most other public school groups.
“I will not go along with any plans to drain money from public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers,” he said to the thunderous applause of the audience.
Mr. Gore also devoted much of his speech to discussing families and moral values, weaving in his parents’ and others’ life stories. He told the story of one family whose children attend Davy Crockett Elementary School in San Antonio, which he described as crumbling and overcrowded.
That struck a note with Sonny Ochoa, a convention attendee who went to the same school 40 years ago. The story “turned me around completely,” he said, adding that he had been confused about the issues until then.
Mr. Gore also said he had been touched by meeting many hard-working teachers in the schools he has visited during his campaign.
“I know that teaching our children well is not just the teacher’s job; it’s everyone’s job—and it has to be our national mission,” he said.