Candidates Differ on Testing During First Presidential Debate
While this year’s first debate between the major-party presidential nominees focused heavily on such issues as taxes, prescription drugs, and Social Security, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas also had a chance to spotlight their education platforms. Aside from parting on whether to provide vouchers to students in failing schools (which Mr. Bush supports and Mr. Gore opposes), both candidates agreed on a number of school issues during the Oct. 3 debate at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Both, for instance, said local control would be paramount.
But the two sparred on their proposals for mandatory testing, with Mr. Bush—the Republican nominee—showing far more enthusiasm for such tests than is traditional for mandate-skeptical members of the GOP.
Mr. Bush wants to require testing in grades 3-8 in schools that receive federal Title I funds.
“You must say that if you receive money, you must show us whether or not children are learning to read and write and add and subtract,” he said. “You claim that you have mandatory testing,” he continued, addressing his Democratic opponent, “but you don’t ... and that is a huge difference.”
But Mr. Gore said that he, too, would require testing, and that he would also push for voluntary national tests in grades 4 and 8. He went on to say that his plan would also require new teachers to take tests in the subjects they teach.
“The voluntary national test is in addition to the mandatory testing that we require of states, all schools, all school districts, of students themselves, and required teacher testing,” Mr. Gore said.
Mr. Bush interrupted him. “All I’m saying is, if you spend money, show us results, and test every year, which you do not do, Mr. Vice President,” the governor said. “You do not test every year. You can say you do into cameras, but you don’t, unless you’ve changed your plan here on the stage.”
Mr. Gore replied, “I didn’t say that.”
Mr. Gore charged that his opponent is more intent on creating tax cuts for the rich than promoting spending on education and other social programs. He said Mr. Bush would spend $5 on a tax break for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population for every $1 he spent on education.
“I want to make education the number-one priority in the budget, not a tax cut for the wealthy,” Mr. Gore said, reiterating a familiar theme from his campaign.
Mr. Bush retorted that Mr. Gore’s accusations were based on “fuzzy math.”
He also charged that the Clinton-Gore administration has not demanded accountability from federally funded education programs.
The next presidential debate is set for Oct. 11 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
During last week’s debate, the vice president told the story of Kailey Ellis, a 15-year-old student at Florida’s Sarasota High School.
"[Her father] sent me a picture of her in the classroom. They can’t squeeze another desk in for her, so she has to stand during class,” Mr. Gore said.
But questions about the anecdote’s accuracy arose soon after the debate, and Principal Daniel Kennedy of the 2,440-student Sarasota High disputed Mr. Gore’s characterization.
“We don’t have students standing in classes on a daily basis,” he said in an interview last Thursday.
While class sizes have increased in his school, Mr. Kennedy said, the class in question was simply full because it contained boxes with new equipment. He said there was room in the class for another desk and chair, which were available, but the teacher opted not to request them that day.
“I really feel that the vice president’s intentions were well-founded,” he said, but “Sarasota is not a good example of a school in crisis. ... We are a five-star school in Florida,” which is the state’s top rating.
He added: “I was in [that classroom] today, and I almost laughed. Here is a chemistry-biology teacher’s dream classroom,” with two new television monitors and 12 new computers at lab stations.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Gore campaign, said the situation was originally reported by a local newspaper.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune features Ms. Ellis in a Sept. 9 story describing how budget cuts have forced the school to increase class sizes.
The article reports that she stood during her first day in a new science class, and she is quoted as saying that in her previous class “people had to sit on the floor.”
Overall, Mr. Cabrera added, “it doesn’t change the fact that nationwide, you have a situation where students are facing overcrowding [in classrooms].
Veeps Say Education Is at Top
Separately, education also came up during the only vice presidential debate of the campaign season, held last Thursday night at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Vice President Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Gov. Bush’s running mate, former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, agreed that education would be the top priority in either of their administrations.
Mr. Cheney said he and Gov. Bush believe in public education and want to restore it to what they see as its former glory.
But both have been discouraged by little or no progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in reading and math, he said.
Sen. Lieberman responded that average test scores are up, and he touted plans by Vice President Gore to devote part of the anticipated future budget surplus to hiring new teachers, supporting school construction and renovation, and providing higher education tax breaks.
“You cannot reform education and improve it without spending some money,” Sen. Lieberman said.
— Joetta L. Sack & Erik W. Robelen