Will the Real Education Candidate Please Stand Up?

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It happened in a buffet line.

Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, had just finished giving a speech and was surveying his lunchtime options when the chairman of a legislative education committee introduced himself.

As Levine remembers it, the state lawmaker conceded that he didn't know much about education. But he was sure that, with some expert advice, he could "ride the issue all the way to the governor's mansion," Levine says.

Thanks to voter interest and a strong economy, school issues are getting big play on the campaign trail this fall.

"Here I am about to eat lunch, and suddenly I figure I have about six minutes to educate this guy," Levine says. "It was the scariest thing."

Scary, but perhaps not surprising. In 1998, education has become a dominant theme on the state and federal campaign trail. The economy remains strong in most parts of the country, the Cold War is long over, and what political analysts call second-tier issues are in. And none, it appears, is hotter than education.

Democrats and Republicans alike are pitching school platforms with near-religious zeal and wooing the electorate through visions of a Promised Land with small classes, rigorous courses, qualified teachers, and new school facilities. Still, whether all the talk is good news or a mixed blessing remains to be seen.

"When education was outside the realm of politics, a lot of us said that in order to support and maintain public education, it must be a political priority," says Arne F. Fege, a former government-relations director of the National PTA and the current president of a children's advocacy organization. "Now that it is, are we liking what we see? Does this attention strengthen public education? I think the jury is still out."

Margin of error: ± 3 percentage points
SOURCE: Kaiser/Harvard Survey of Americans' Views on the Consumer Protection Debate

"Let's be real. If the economy were on the skids, that would be at the top of the charts. But the economy is way, way down as an issue," says Peter H. Fenn, the president of Fenn & King Communications, a Democratic media-consulting firm in Washington. "Education is the issue that fills the void."

The way candidates fill that void is another matter. Many, it seems, are simply looking to convince voters that education matters to them.

With so many politicians talking about education, it's sometimes hard to tell one candidate from the next.

For example, in one television advertisement, a deep-voiced narrator seeks to leave no doubt about the priorities held by U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga. The narrator intones: "Sen. Coverdell has done more to improve America's schools than many senators do in a lifetime."

And then there is Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. In one of her television spots, she is shown listening to teachers in a classroom as they complain about working conditions. Lincoln concludes by declaring: "Our children are our greatest resource. ... It's time we get serious about improving education."

Ultimately, it's always safe for candidates to be surrounded by children. Fenn says that just about all of the 15 candidates he is working with are airing television commercials dealing with education. "I have so many shots of candidates and kids, it will make your hair stand on end," he says bluntly.

But creating just the right image is essential, says Paul Pelletier, a Republican campaign strategist and the president of Direct Campaign Solutions, a Florida-based political-consulting group. That is why, especially this year, ads may be short on detail, but full of warm and fuzzy visuals of politicians cozying up to kids and hunkering down in classrooms. "A large segment of people vote on image," Pelletier says. "There's a saying in politics that perception is reality. It might not be true, but if it is perceived, then it is in fact true."

When platforms get specific, it tends to be on proposals and themes that have been blessed by candidates and potential voters alike. Some observers refer to these as "middle" issues on which both Republicans and Democrats can run safely.

That's why this year scores of candidates at all levels are promising to lower class sizes--even though research is mixed on the results of such policies--to as few as 17 students per room. In Georgia, gubernatorial candidates Roy Barnes, a Democrat, and Guy Millner, a Republican, are both promising to shrink class sizes if elected.

Political hopefuls on both sides of the aisle are also promising to end social promotion, the practice of sending students to the next grade level before they are academically ready. And teachers likewise are getting a lot of attention.

California's gubernatorial contenders--Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Daniel E. Lungren--both want competency testing for teachers. And, across the country, other candidates are promoting merit pay and other incentives as ways to recruit better-prepared teachers. "In a lot of races, it looks like candidates are cloning each other," Fege, the former PTA lobbyist, quips.

Admittedly, says one political consultant, it is harder this year to earn the label of ''education candidate.''

"It's a little more difficult to distinguish yourself on the issue of education because you don't have voters who are as polarized," says Tom Russell, a Democratic media consultant for Murphy Putnam Media in Alexandria, Va. "Education is not an issue like gun control or abortion."

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government affairs for the National Education Association, says the campaigns are leaving voters with mixed impressions.

One surefire defining issue, however, is school vouchers.

In Florida, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush gets glowing reviews from Pat Tornillo, the president of the Florida Education Association United, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But the group is endorsing Democratic candidate Buddy MacKay, largely because of Bush's proposal to create a limited voucher program for students in low-performing schools.

"A voucher is a voucher is a voucher," Tornillo says. "Once you open the door a little, you provide an opening in the future for expansion."

Other candidates deserve points for originality for some of their campaign promises. For example: Davis is promising Californians that, if elected governor, he will make parents sign contracts with schools committing them to help with homework, while in Massachusetts, Democrat Scott Harshbarger says he plans to serve simultaneously as the chairman of the state school board if voters make him governor.

Others are backing get-tough themes, for teachers and students, with specific ideas. In Georgia, millionaire businessman Millner wants teacher candidates to have a 3.0 grade point average in the subjects they plan to teach in order to be certified. Barnes, his opponent, wants to establish a 10 p.m. curfew for students on Sundays through Thursdays. And Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Frank Keating wants all high school students to complete four years of English, math, science, and social studies.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government affairs for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association, says the campaigns are leaving voters with mixed impressions.

"It plays out differently, depending on how deep candidates go," she says. "Based on our polling, the public is not seeing a difference. They see both candidates as pro-education. There's not a one who is not talking about education."

Not everyone is sure what to make of the rush to court the education vote. In fact, many observers are downright leery.

Levine of Teachers College says few of the politicians he has talked to are candid enough to say they don't know enough about school issues.

"Assuming there are lots of people like me being called for [advice on] this stuff, in the short run, we could get a more educated government and get greater state action in education," he says. "The bad part is that they feel they must do something--anything--and that might not be good."

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 26-31

Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Will the Real Education Candidate Please Stand Up?
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