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Final Debate Highlights Vouchers

The third and final debate of the fall presidential campaign yielded some of the highest-profile exchanges on education of the series of matchups between Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore.

Education spending and school vouchers were among the issues aired last week in the town-hall-style event held at Washington University in St. Louis.

The candidates and moderator Jim Lehrer shared space on a red-carpeted stage surrounded by undecided voters who came armed with questions on all manner of public-policy issues.

Of the more than 130 questions the audience submitted, 18 involved education, Mr. Lehrer announced. The first education query centered on parent involvement.

Mr. Bush, the GOP nominee, replied that he believes "strong accountability encourages parental involvement." The governor, who wants to require states to test students in exchange for federal funding, said "we ought to measure a lot—3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8th grade."

He went on to say that safe classrooms are also crucial, and that he supports passing a federal "teacher liability act" to protect teachers and school administrators from being sued if they maintain "reasonable standards of classroom discipline."

And, as he has done on the campaign trail, Mr. Bush said there should be consequences for failure. "And one of these consequences is to allow parents to have different choices," he said in an allusion to his proposal to allow federally financed education vouchers for students in chronically failing schools that receive aid under the Title I program.

The last remark inspired a passionate response from Mr. Gore, his Democratic rival.

"We have a huge difference between us on this question," the vice president said, before outlining his platform for continued federal funding for hiring 100,000 new teachers, providing federal support for school construction, aid for teacher training, and a "$10,000-a-year tax deduction for college tuition so that middle-class families will always be able to send their kids on to college."

Mr. Gore saved his strongest words for vouchers, which he claimed would "drain" more money from the public schools than Gov. Bush has proposed spending on schools.

After the debate, a Gore campaign aide said that, if the 2.1 million children in Title I schools currently failing to meet their states' testing goals requested Mr. Bush's proposed $1,500 vouchers, it would cost $3.1 billion. That is more than the Gore campaign projects that Gov. Bush would add in new education spending.

But a Bush official rebutted the Gore camp's claims. For one, Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said, Gov. Bush has proposed more than $4 billion per year in new education spending. In addition, "it is ridiculous to assume" that none of the schools the children attend would improve and that all of the children would request the $1,500, Mr. Sullivan said.

In answering another question in the debate, Mr. Gore said that many communities have difficulty passing bond issues to support their schools. "It's not enough to leave it up to the local school districts," he said, adding that the importance of education underscores the need for the programs he has proposed.

But Mr. Bush raised concerns about "federalizing education." He said his opponent wants to increase federal education aid by a huge amount, which he contended would increase red tape and sap local control.

Mr. Gore countercharged that the Republican nominee has focused his funding priorities on a tax cut for the wealthy.

Mr. Gore has proposed increasing education spending by $115 billion over 10 years, while Mr. Bush has said he wants to raise such spending by nearly $50 billion over the same period. The current fiscal 2000 budget for the Department of Education is $43.1 billion.

Some children's advocates are calling on the presidential candidates to commit to stemming the rise of marketing to children.

"Because marketing to children is so pervasive, affecting all aspects of their lives from health to safety and education, we believe it constitutes an escalating public-health problem that must be addressed by the next administration," the advocates wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Gov. Bush, Vice President Gore, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan.

Among the signatories are Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, and Alex Molnar, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The letter says that corporations currently spend about $12 billion each year on marketing to children, nearly twice the amount spent in 1992. "Children are bombarded with marketing from the moment they wake up until bedtime," the letter says.

The letter asks that the next president take the lead in establishing policies to protect children from such marketing.

Thomas Adkins, a spokesman for Mr. Nader's campaign, said the longtime consumer advocate would be sure to take aggressive actions on that front should he be elected president. "This is something Nader has been talking about his whole life," he said.

Gore spokesman Dagoberto Vega said that the vice president has talked at length about cracking down on marketing to children by the entertainment industry. The letter's call "seems consistent with what Al Gore has been saying throughout the campaign," he said.

The Bush and Buchanan campaigns did not return calls for comment last week.

—Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily & Erik W. Robelen

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 34

Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Election Notebook
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