Another Boilerplate Campaign Misses the Point

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If it illustrates nothing else, this year's presidential campaign spotlights anew the gap between what voters claim to care about and what candidates think will get them elected. In poll after poll, we routinely put education at the top of our worry lists, and the pundits concur. Then, while professing their profound commitments to improving the schools, the campaigners shove intelligent debate on them aside in favor of anything they think will grab voters. Polls or no polls, education reform, especially in urban America, is a near-guaranteed turnoff. In the argot of the 1990s, this is a disconnect, big-time.

To the surprise of no one, President Clinton's messages on nearly everything are pitched to demonstrate that he is an ideology-free pragmatist positioned where most Americans want their president to be: in the safe middle of the road (which, the maverick commentator Jim Hightower likes to remind us, contains dead armadillos and yellow stripes). He is clearly comfortable with the shift to the right that the center of gravity of American politics has taken. The spin that he and his handlers put on most issues of the day would have found little disagreement in the administrations of Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush. The case could be made, in fact, that the Nixon years saw more progress toward equal opportunity in education than we have witnessed to date from this incumbent.

Though the much-analyzed presidential turn to the right has not been as obvious in education as in other domestic domains, Mr. Clinton's opportunistic, poll-driven appeal to this year's average voter, who is supposed to be the white suburban "soccer mom," has disappointed, even outraged, many Democratic loyalists. Fully aware that public school backers have nowhere else to turn, he has unveiled a series of what Maureen Dowd of The New York Times calls "teensy-weensy pronouncements" for an "Itsy-Bitsy society." These carefully calibrated initiatives constitute a near-perfect example of how this savvy Hall of Fame politician aspires to be all things to all people, including his most fervent opponents. Such politics-as-virtue items as V-chips, school uniforms, curfews, appropriate TV content for the young, and limitations on access to tobacco have universal appeal. To these can be added his somewhat meatier but noncontroversial calls for 14 years of school, having every child reading by age 8 and on the Internet by age 12, and an array of education-centered tax benefits. All are firmly planted on the side of the angels, and none, conveniently, are exactly high-priority federal concerns.

As he has repeatedly demonstrated, when W.J. Clinton holds forth on the schools, any traits of a "Slick Willie" persona seem to evaporate, and his audience is treated to that rarest of spectacles: an exhaustively informed president capable of extemporizing on the full sweep of education or, like Lyndon B. Johnson, on the fine points of seemingly obscure legislation. In contrast to former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, Mr. Clinton does not regard education as a marketplace for venture capitalists nor does he pine for a miraculous return to that easily romanticized yesteryear when government supposedly minded its own business, small-town verities prevailed, and people knew their place. This president may not be an ideal leader to follow into battle, but in education, at least, he realizes that doctrine and instinct are not enough; information and perspective weigh heavily, and he has plenty of both. There is scant evidence of hypocrisy or of a Dick Morris makeover when he gets going about children and schools.

For a lifelong politician not renowned for consistency or persistence on the issues, President Clinton has racked up a remarkably steady, upbeat performance on education, with several notable achievements on the scoreboard. Not the least of these was his success in somehow preserving a reasonably respectable education appropriation in the midst of the slash-and-burn budget-cutting of domestic programs by the 104th Congress. Even the maligned U.S. Department of Education, a longtime target of conservatives, has drawn relatively light fire. Much of the credit for its dignified survival belongs to its unobtrusively effective chief, Richard W. Riley, the straight-shooting education governor of South Carolina of the 1980s, who would most likely win any fair contest as the most popular and respected Cabinet officer in the Clinton administration. The modest successes of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act owe much to his feather-tip sensitivity to the inherent limitations of Washington's place in educational policy-shaping.

To understate the obvious, Mr. Dole's treatment of education in this exasperating boilerplate campaign has been shallow and a tad nasty. Rather than recount, or even allude to, the epic accomplishments and troubling challenges that describe public education in America, the venerable career politician has portrayed our schools as being overrun by the children of illegal immigrants and of having been "run into the ground" by, of all people, the teachers' unions, a force evidently as sinister as the Unabomber or Boutros Boutros-Ghali. We have met the enemy, and they turn out to be the democratically elected representatives of 2.5 million schoolteachers.

Mr. Dole's main offerings on education, notably his proposal for a somewhat constipated program of "opportunity scholarships" (private school vouchers), are tepid stuff. Even a sniffing bloodhound would find little in the Kansan's 35-year record on Capitol Hill to suggest more than a passing interest in public education. His Republican National Convention acceptance speech telling the country that "if education were a war, you would be losing it" was hardly calculated to inspire an electorate that, for better or worse, cares deeply about improving our schools. To be fair, though, Senator Dole's ignorance of and indifference to educational policy issues probably reflect the attitudes of most of his former congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But he is the one running for president.

What the candidates don't talk about may tell more about the condition of national politics than the geysers of tidbits that issue daily from the message-meisters of the campaign. From neither camp have we yet heard a serious call to serve, an appeal to rise above ourselves and pitch in to help revive dying urban communities and institutions. President Clinton offers to furnish paid "volunteers" from the tiny, politically vulnerable AmeriCorps to help teach inner-city children how to read but, beyond its limited symbolic value, such a move would scarcely make a dent. Our national cynicism about the agencies that serve anyone, but particularly the less fortunate, is hardening. We do not just mistrust all government agencies; according to Susan Tolchin's The Angry American, most of us hate and are intensely angry at them. In this climate, how can we take seriously any bright young person who chooses teaching or service in a federal agency over building a really respectable career as, say, a high-tech small-cap mutual fund broker? With rare exceptions, sad to say, public service no longer attracts our best and brightest. Neither candidate seems to care.

Even more troubling is Mr. Clinton's role in scuttling our 60-year commitment to help poor and special-needs children through food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. This punitive, child-hostile welfare "reform" action will have a devastating effect on the upbringing--and schooling--of as many as 1.1 million already deprived children now and, according to the Urban Institute, nearly 5 million by 2005. Bulldozing these young victims into ever-deeper poverty and even more dismal futures than they already faced is cruel abandonment, not reform. A President Dole, rated as a compassionate person by those who know him, would have signed this bill in a nanosecond. President Clinton, who feels our pain, agonized publicly before signing it. Is there a difference?

In ignoring the potentially catastrophic effect of this massive policy shift on the schools and at-risk children who need help the most, we keep intact our record of disregarding workable if admittedly difficult solutions that ought to be high-visibility campaign subjects. One such is eliminating or at least significantly reducing the ponderous, outdated compartmentalization of human- services facilities, services, and agencies--explicitly including schools--that serve urban and poor rural America. This would obviously be a Herculean task, made even more daunting by bureaucratic obstructionism, territoriality, legislative intent, and other forces too numerous to list. But it has been done in pieces: in urban empowerment zones, in all-day family-services-oriented schools, and in such experimental efforts as the New Futures Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Until and unless bold measures such as these are aired in political campaigns, our neediest children and their schools are consigned to more of the same--which isn't nearly good enough. Neither is politics as usual.

Vol. 16, Issue 08, Pages 35, 44

Published in Print: October 23, 1996, as Another Boilerplate Campaign Misses the Point
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