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Moderate Democrats Swap Ideas On Schools

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Moderate Democratic leaders came together here today to discuss failing schools, early-childhood education, and teacher training as the Democratic National Convention moved into its second day.

Democrats want to pour more money into education in return for more accountability for failing schools, said U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a former governor of that state who is seen as one of the party’s rising stars. “[Education] is not a national priority, and it should be, and we’re dedicated to changing that,” he said.

The panel of governors and congressional leaders, brought together by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, dismissed the idea of publicly financed tuition vouchers for private education, however. That consensus contrasted with the position of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the DLC’s chairman and the Democrats’ soon-to-be nominee for vice president.

Sen. Lieberman, a past proponent of experimenting with private school vouchers for poor children, had been scheduled to be on the panel, but he sent his regrets this morning.

“You don’t ignore these failing schools, and second, you don’t just put money into these failing schools,” said Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina. Mr. Hunt added that such an approach had bogged down Democrats in the past and opened the door for voucher advocates.

“They say vouchers, then take some money, then wash their hands of it,” the governor said. “We’ve got to understand we can fix the schools.”

Going Public

Several of the panelists called for public school choice as a way to instill competition into a school system. Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, who is running for the U.S. Senate, lauded his state’s system that allows students and their families to choose schools in other neighborhoods that have room to accept new students. Fifteen percent of Delaware students now take advantage of the option, he said.

The DLC has consistently pressed for more accountability and choice in the public school system, including producing a proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that won praise from some conservatives and strained ties with more liberal Democrats.

Panelists also advocated high academic standards and an emphasis on recruiting and training good teachers as necessary to revamping public education. Early-childhood education, including the federal Head Start program, is key to ensuring that students will be ready to meet high standards, several panelists said.

“We are never going to improve education in the way we want to until we recognize the importance of early learning for children,” Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said.

The panel was just one of several on various issues that the Washington- based DLC coordinated for this week.

At the convention headquarters downtown, many of the governors were gearing up to speak on education this afternoon.

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