The presidential campaign is heating up, and the two leading candidates—Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore—are doing their utmost to impress the public with their plans for fixing America’s schools.
Last week, Mr. Bush, the Republican nominee, made his 100th school visit of the campaign. He has used the visits both to unveil new education proposals and take swipes at his Democratic opponent.
“Vice President Gore’s education plan represents the status quo,” Gov. Bush said during a school visit in New Mexico earlier in the week. “If you want to close the achievement gap in America, you better have education vision, a different president.”
Mr. Gore’s camp, meanwhile, is not taking the criticism quietly. “After visiting 100 schools, you would think Governor Bush would learn a thing or two about what they need,” said the vice president’s national campaign spokesman, Douglas Hattaway, who released a 14-page comparison of the two candidates’ education plans last Thursday. “They need qualified new teachers, smaller class sizes, and preschool for all. What they don’t need is a hundred photo-ops.”
Rhetoric aside, what’s clear is that both candidates are attaching high prominence to education and, when they aren’t jabbing at each other, they can be heard espousing goals and policy proposals that sound surprisingly similar.
With the notable exception of publicly financed vouchers for private education—Mr. Bush supports vouchers for children in troubled schools; Mr. Gore adamantly opposes them—it is important details that define the K-12 policy differences between the two. Specifically, the candidates diverge on flexibility in using federal money and on just how the federal government should hold schools, teachers, and students more accountable.
Many observers, however, seem more interested in the ideas the two share.
“The old ‘federalism’ debate is gone,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., referring to the question of whether the federal government should have much of a say in education at all. Mr. Finn, the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. “You really have to be an education wonk to get into these nuances,” Mr. Finn added.
“They both agree on expanding the federal role, there’s no question about that, and that is quite remarkable for a Republican,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution here. He noted that the two major differences between the candidates remain vouchers and Mr. Gore’s plan for an initiative to foster universal preschool education for U.S. children.
Both parties’ education plans are also much more comprehensive than those of past years.
“It’s as if somebody sat down and said, ‘What are all the aspects of education, and how can we address all of them?’ ” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group for disadvantaged children.
While Ms. Haycock remains skeptical about both candidates’ plans for closing the achievement gap between poor children and their better-off peers, she said she was encouraged by the attention the issue has received. “We’ve never had a Republican or Democratic platform that promises to close the gap,” she said.
At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last month, Gov. Bush and his running mate, former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, argued that current federal education policies do not do enough to help poor children, and they faulted the record of President Clinton and Vice President Gore’s administration on helping failing students in struggling public schools.
“Too many American children are segregated into schools without standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of their knowledge,” the governor said in his Aug. 3 nomination-acceptance speech, sounding themes he has emphasized throughout his campaign. “This is discrimination, pure and simple—the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Two weeks later, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Mr. Gore and his vice presidential running-mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, vowed to make education the nation’s “number-one priority.”
Mr. Gore promised, if elected, to pursue many of the education themes President Clinton has promoted, including aid for class-size reduction and hiring new teachers, new school construction funds, and more tax breaks for college and child care. Mr. Gore has also said he wants to increase teacher salaries and professionalism, and give every child access to high-quality preschool.
“Education may be a local responsibility, but I believe it has to be our number-one priority,” he said during his acceptance speech on Aug. 17. “We can’t stop until every school in America is a good place to get a good education.”
Both candidates agree that more federal money should be allotted to help states meet the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law. And both want to increase access to higher education through tax breaks.
They also share the view that more needs to be done to ensure that disadvantaged children have access to high-quality early-learning programs, but their plans for doing so differ.
Gov. Bush wants to restructure the Head Start preschool program to emphasize early reading. Today, the federal program is run by the Department of Health and Human Services and addresses a range of concerns, including child health and nutrition. The Republican wants to focus on its education aspects and put Head Start under the Department of Education’s supervision.
He also has pitched spending $5 billion over five years on a new “Reading First” program to help poor children learn to read by 3rd grade. That program would give schools reading-intervention and diagnostic materials, a new research-based reading curriculum, and training for K-2 teachers.
The second-term governor has long emphasized reading skills in the Texas schools and has won praise in some circles for boosts in the achievement scores of low-income and minority students.
Vice President Gore has proposed a $50 billion, 10-year plan aimed at giving states money to help them create voluntary universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. He also wants to expand Head Start and establish a $3 billion “early-learning fund” that would be used to improve the quality of child care and early-childhood education.
Earlier this year, Mr. Gore also proposed a teacher-accountability plan that would require rigorous testing for new teachers, periodic peer reviews, and faster removal of incompetent teachers. In return, the federal government would provide $8 billion over 10 years for salary increases of up to $5,000 a year for teachers in low-income communities that adopted high standards. The plan would also provide funding for student-loan forgiveness and “signing bonuses” for recent graduates and career-switchers who agreed to teach in high-need districts.
Mr. Bush would use new and existing funds to create a $2.4 billion program for states to train and recruit teachers and enact accountability systems.
The Voucher Debate
Both Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore are spending a lot of campaign time talking about school accountability. Both would use the leverage of federal school aid to place new requirements on states aimed at spurring school improvement.
Under a Bush proposal, states would have to release school report cards annually, and states that consistently failed to raise student achievement would lose Title I administrative funds. In addition, families of students in schools identified as “persistently failing” would receive federally funded vouchers that would allow their children to receive tutoring or to attend another public, private, or religious school.
The Gore plan also features annual school report cards; any school deemed to be failing would have to be shut down and reopened under new management. States would also risk losing Title I administrative funds if student achievement did not improve.
Mr. Gore has also called for a voluntary national test in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics—a plan that echoes President Clinton’s doomed national-testing proposal of 1997. Mr. Gore would also give states financial rewards for requiring high school students to pass an exit exam before receiving a diploma.
The vice president also wants to increase public school choice, in part through federal funding for more charter schools. But he has made his position on vouchers clear: “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 in his Aug. 17 nomination-acceptance speech, to thunderous applause. That stand pleased the teachers’ unions and liberal Democrats who oppose vouchers.
In a contrast that has been widely noted since Mr. Gore’s selection of Mr. Lieberman as his running mate, the Connecticut senator has a record of support for experimental vouchers for poor children.
The Gore-Lieberman ticket has received the endorsement of the nation’s two major teachers’ unions, the 2.4-million-member National Education Association and the 1 million-member American Federation of Teachers. More than 10 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention were members of one of those unions.
Not all teachers’ union members, though, are supporting the Democrats. Forty-two delegates and alternates at the GOP convention were members of the NEA.
While both candidates’ plans would hike federal involvement in schools, Rod Paige, the superintendent of the 208,000-student Houston district, said his peers should welcome them. “Those of us in public education have a responsibility to make those schools work,” said Mr. Paige, who is an adviser to Gov. Bush. “We have to accept responsibility for students’ learning.”
In a year marked by record surpluses in the federal budget, both candidates’ proposals would raise government spending significantly. Mr. Gore has bragged that his “Education Trust Fund” plan, which would use part of the budget surplus to fund his new education proposals and expand existing programs, would cost about $115 billion over 10 years. Mr. Bush’s initiatives, which his campaign estimates would cost an additional $47 billion over 10 years, is seen as a substantial commitment for a Republican.
Whether education will remain a top theme in the campaign is open to dispute. Mr. Loveless of the Brookings Institution, for one, said he expects issues such as Social Security and the budget to dominate the presidential race in coming weeks.
Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore are likely to turn to issues where the president has more power and the two contenders have sharper disagreements, Mr. Loveless said. And, he argued, “presidents really have very little to do with educational achievement.”