On a mission to learn about the inner workings of public schools, Vice President Al Gore is perched awkwardly at a tot-sized table in a kindergarten classroom, trying to draw a shy, dark-haired boy into conversation.
But the boy isn’t cooperating, so Mr. Gore turns to a classmate, a boisterous girl, and notices she has lost her front teeth. She says she just received $5 from the tooth fairy.
“Oh, the rate’s going up!” the vice president exclaims, to the nervous laughter of a few adult bystanders in the hushed room.
Similar scenes are repeated here at Avondale Elementary School throughout his April 11 visit, the second in a series of “school days” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has pledged to conduct once a week during his campaign—and continue, albeit less often, if elected in November.
For a politician known more for his interest in issues such as the environment, technology, and “reinventing” government, these school visits illustrate the increasing weight Mr. Gore has put on education since beginning his campaign for president.
Until he began laying out his own agenda last year, his education record consisted largely of his enthusiastic support for the school initiatives associated with President Clinton: hiring an eventual 100,000 new teachers, drastically increasing funding for after-school programs, providing more college-tuition assistance, and promoting academic standards and accountability.
Most notably, the vice president has been a strong proponent of technology in classrooms, and helped create the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.
“Clinton did use him as a very close adviser, but on the public record, the closest attention he’s paid to education was technology,” said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, based in Washington, and a former longtime aide to House Democrats. “He did not seem, as a vice president, to get heavily involved” in education issues.
But now, Mr. Gore calls education his No. 1 priority. He has proposed a broad plan to expand the $35.6 billion U.S. Department of Education discretionary budget by spreading $115 billion from the federal budget surplus over the next 10 years. That plan includes providing preschool for all 4-year-olds, holding teachers accountable to higher standards in exchange for salary increases, and increasing funding for special education, among other initiatives.
“We’ve come to a time when education has to be seen not just as additional help that produces incremental progress, but we need to revolutionize education,” he said in an interview with Education Week after his visit to Avondale Elementary. “We cannot be satisfied with slow, incremental progress; we have to go much farther, much faster.”
Mr. Gore faces a presumptive Republican opponent, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who has been closely identified with school issues since first taking office in 1995. Mr. Bush has proposed a federal plan for school accountability that, among other provisions, would eventually shut down low-performing Title I schools and give their students vouchers to find a better education in private, religious, or other public schools. (“Bush Leading Republicans in New Direction,” April 5, 2000.)
The core of Mr. Gore’s plan would instill new accountability measures for teachers, students, and schools.
He wants all states to create high school graduation exams. Districts would be required to issue report cards on all schools, and identify and fix failing schools or shut them down and reopen them under new administration. Teachers would be tested on their academic-content knowledge and be subject to peer-review programs, in exchange for higher salaries.
“The new resources have to be coupled with new accountability—not teaching to the tests, not obsessing with particular scores, but balanced, comprehensive measures that show us whether particular school districts and schools are headed in the right direction,” Mr. Gore said in the interview last week.
So far, teachers have reacted favorably to the plan, and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have both endorsed Mr. Gore’s candidacy.
At Avondale Elementary School here in Columbus, Principal Mary Ann Burns said her teachers would welcome such a plan.
“They’re not afraid of anything, because they are constantly working and taking courses,” she said. “We need to be treated more like professionals.”
But Amy Wilkins, a senior associate at the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington that studies teacher issues, said the plan falls short of ensuring that teachers would receive high-quality professional development. She also believes that teacher pay increases should be tied to student performance, something that neither candidate’s plan addresses.
“The incompleteness of [Mr. Gore’s] agenda on teaching is disturbing, and we think Bush has missed the boat as well,” she said.
Mr. Gore also used his school day last week to promote his “universal preschool plan,” a costly proposal to ensure that all 4-year-olds and more 3-year-olds have access to early education.
“It’s an important step forward,” said Bruce Fuller, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at the University of California, Berkeley, that studies early-childhood education. “But he should speak more seriously about how we’re going to recruit and train quality preschool teachers.”
Part of the problem is that K-12 class-size-reduction efforts have already recruited some of the best preschool teachers for jobs in elementary schools, exacerbating the shortages, Mr. Fuller added.
Mr. Gore’s plan also builds on some of President Clinton’s favorites. For instance, he has included the administration’s embattled proposal to increase federal funding for school construction, and he would also continue funding for hiring new teachers and reducing class sizes. Technology funding is also a priority, as is expanding Head Start programs.
The Gore plan has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans, who believe it puts too much funding and control at the federal level.
“The figure of $115 billion is pie-in-the-sky, not a prudent proposal based on a sound assessment of public policy needs,” Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a written statement to Education Week.
“These are all good ideas to implement at the state or local level, but I don’t like the idea of imposing them from the federal level,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, the education policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation and a volunteer adviser to Gov. Bush’s campaign.
‘A Down-to-Earth Man’
The Gore campaign staff chose Avondale Elementary for last week’s visit because its 4th graders showed exemplary gains in the district’s assessments last year. The 109-year-old facility sits in a blighted, working-class, and predominantly white neighborhood near downtown Columbus.
As he plans to do with other “school days” visits, Mr. Gore asked to stay overnight at the home of a teacher to learn more about education issues and working families. Last week, he was hosted by Avondale special education teacher Susan Fadley, who reported that they had held a late-night, earnest chat about personal issues and the school.
“I lost a little sleep ... but I gained a lot by that” visit, Mr. Gore said later.
Once at school, he met with everyone from parents and teachers to the custodial staff. He attended several classes, at one point making a collage during art instruction, and helped teach a lesson on parallelograms.
While he does not have the charisma and effusive charm of his boss, several teachers said he was more impressive in person than he appears on television. Assistant librarian Delores Minnix, for one, said she thought he posed substantive, insightful questions during his meetings with parents and teachers.
“He’s a down-to-earth, nice man,” said Ms. Minnix, who had not decided which candidate to vote for in the November general election. “This has definitely changed my opinion of him.”
Ms. Burns, the principal, said Mr. Gore was the first local or national official to visit the school in recent years, despite its dramatic improvement.
“Nobody ever comes here,” Ms. Burns said. “For the vice president of the United States to come to this community, people are really excited.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Gore Takes Campaign Back to School