When Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Mark Twain Center for the Gifted and Talented in New York City last month, she cast herself as a longtime education reformer who is well aware of—and prepared to fix—the problems of New York’s public schools.
The first lady, by all accounts, is trying to use education as a pivotal issue in her first-of-its-kind race for the U.S. Senate.
Mrs. Clinton, who established residency in Chappaqua, N.Y., earlier this year, wants to become the first wife of a U.S. president to go on to win a seat in Congress. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick A. Lazio, meanwhile, is hoping that anti-Clinton sentiment and his moderate voting record in the House of Representatives will help propel him into the seat that has been held by Mrs. Clinton’s fellow Democrat, retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, since 1977.
The candidates’ education platforms largely follow party lines: They differ on priorities, such as which programs the federal government should spend money on, and philosophy, such as whether to allow federally financed tuition vouchers to help students attend private and religious schools.
But the two are similar in one way: Both have a lot to say about schools.
“They’re both talking about education a lot, and running ads,” said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If Clinton wins, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on one of the education committees.”
Debating the Issues
The candidates’ views on education came into clear focus during their second debate, held Oct. 8 in New York City. If elected, Mrs. Clinton, 52, has vowed to support what she terms her husband’s legacy in education while also bringing home more funding for school programs in the Empire State. She says she would vigorously support the federal program, championed by President Clinton, to help districts hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes, and would work to pass school construction legislation.
And, while Mr. Lazio, 42, supports the concept of providing government-funded vouchers for students in failing schools, Mrs. Clinton adamantly opposes publicly funded school vouchers.
“On these issues, there is vigorous disagreement, but I believe that when you have 90 percent of our children in public schools, we need to pay attention to giving public schools the resources they need,” Mrs. Clinton said during the debate.
Getting more bang for the taxpayer buck has become a prominent theme in the race, with the candidates brandishing statistics showing that New Yorkers do not receive as much federal aid as they send in taxes to Washington.
During the debate, Mr. Lazio zeroed in on the funding theme, charging that Mrs. Clinton had not laid out a vision for bringing enough federal education money to New York state specifically. He said he has supported efforts in the past to hire new teachers and provide more federal education dollars to states in general.
Further, he said, Mrs. Clinton’s platform would not help students who attend troubled public schools, and vouchers are needed to give disadvantaged parents a choice of schools.
“I think it’s immoral to force a child to go to a school where they can’t learn,” Mr. Lazio said. “Poor parents want to have the choice to give their children the education that I want for my children. ... I trust parents to make that decision, and that’s a major philosophical difference.”
Although the Clinton-Lazio race is considered close, recent polls showed Mrs. Clinton pulling ahead. An Oct. 6 poll by Quinnipiac College of 801 likely voters showed the first lady with a 50 percent to 43 percent lead, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; a Sept. 27 poll of 1,101 registered voters by the newspaper Newsday gave Mrs. Clinton a lead of 52 percent to 42 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
As expected, the state teachers’ unions have endorsed Mrs. Clinton.
“She has some excellent programs for education,” including class-size reduction and a program to require states to test new teachers in order to receive federal education funding, said Alan Lubin, the executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, a 440,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “And she has a long record on working with children and on behalf of children,” he said.
A lawyer and a former board chairwoman for the Children’s Defense Fund and a former board member of the National Center on Education and the Economy, Mrs. Clinton has been an advocate on children’s issues during her time in the White House and in Arkansas, during Mr. Clinton’s governorship there. She focused on such issues in her best-selling 1996 book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.
Mrs. Clinton was closely involved in her husband’s education reform initiatives in Arkansas in the 1980s, serving as the chairwoman of the Arkansas Education Standards Committee, which studied the state’s education budget, standards, and teacher-testing efforts.
Many New York voters, however, appear ready to give the nod to Mr. Lazio.
He is popular “certainly among most people who consider themselves conservatives, for a wide range of issues,” including vouchers and teacher quality, said Tom Carroll, the president of the Empire Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Albany, N.Y. Mr. Carroll, whose group has not endorsed either candidate, added that Mrs. Clinton is “such a polarizing figure that I’m not sure if you can disaggregate the issues.”
“This is much more of a national race than a local race,” Mr. Carroll said.
Mr. Lazio, a Long Island native who has represented New York’s 2nd Congressional District since 1993, is counting on that background to help establish credibility with voters statewide. He has criticized Mrs. Clinton for never having held political office and for only recently establishing residency in New York. Mr. Lazio has also raised questions about controversies during President Clinton’s two terms in the White House.
As a member of the House, Mr. Lazio has supported allowing more flexibility in federal funding, and he voted for the proposed Dollars to the Classroom Act, which would block-grant funding for an array of education programs. He also has backed the proposed Teacher Empowerment Act, a GOP plan to use money from the Clinton administration’s new- teacher-hiring program to provide teacher training and professional development.
In campaigning this year, he has called for more federal tax breaks, scholarships, and other assistance in higher education, more funding for after-school efforts, and improved child-care programs.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has proposed a “National Principal Corps” plan intended to help recruit school administrators and lower turnover in their ranks. She also supports federal gun-control legislation as a means of reducing youths’ access to guns and improving school safety, creating new tax credits for higher education expenses, and banning all corporate sponsorship activities in elementary schools.