PRISM Magazine On-Line  - October 1999
Campaign 2000

The Politics of Education

by Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T. Walsh Education has become everyone's pet issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. All the candidates are talking about it, and the two front-runners—Republican Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Democratic Vice President Al Gore—sometimes sound like rhetorical twins when they discuss it.

"Together, we must bring revolutionary change to our public schools," Gore says. "I want to work with parents, teachers, and principals to create the modern classrooms, higher standards, and smaller class sizes your irreplaceable kid deserves." For his part, Bush says education has been his No. 1 priority in Texas and will remain at the top of his agenda if he wins the White House. "The voices of the status quo want to leave the system as it is and doom more children to failure, " the governor declares. "But that is unacceptable to me."

Illustration by Jack HornadyYet beneath the rhetoric, the approaches of Gore and Bush are starkly different. Bush emphasizes local and state control of public schools and downplays any federal role. Gore calls for greater levels of federal activism in education. If the front-runners win their respective nominations, as expected, these different philosophies will play a big part in determining the outcome in November 2000.

In May, the vice president outlined a comprehensive education plan that includes five popular goals: reducing class size in every grade through high school; offering as much as $10,000 in college scholarships to each student willing to teach for at least four years in "high need" school districts; encouraging (but not forcing) states to require all teachers to pass performance evaluations in order to retain their teaching licenses; providing tax-free savings accounts, similar to 401(k) retirement plans, that would enable adults to finance their continuing education and allow parents to save for their kids' education; and providing block grants for states to provide universal access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Gore's aides decline to provide cost estimates for his program, saying such a breakdown will come later. But the more important problem may not be coming up with a price tag but putting his ideas into a compelling form that voters can identify with. Even some of his Democratic allies are worried. "It's true that Gore is proposing some big ideas, like offering universal pre-school," says a Democratic consultant who works closely with the vice president's campaign. "But they get lost in all his lists of small ideas. It diminishes the impact of what he says." This consultant calls it the "Mondale-ization of Al Gore," a reference to former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, a Washington insider who never connected with voters in 1984 and lost badly to the more charismatic and thematic Ronald Reagan.

Gore's proposals have also drawn fire for being too intrusive, an argument that Republicans are sure to make with increasing vehemence as the campaign heats up. For example, Chester E. Finn, a senior fellow and education analyst with the conservative Manhattan Institute, says Gore's plan would amount to a "vast expansion of Uncle Sam's involvement in the country's schools" and a "Potomac power grab."

Bush, on the other hand, says the way to improve education is not by imposing mandates from Washington but by giving states more authority to run their own programs and letting states and localities spend money from Washington without a lot of strings attached. It is a classic conservative position that has caused the Republicans considerable difficulty nationally because it makes them appear to be defenders of the status quo. Bush has yet to spell out in detail his views on the federal role in education, promising to announce his program in the coming months.

But he does have a positive record of accomplishment in his home state. Texas students of all races, for example, have done increasingly well in skills tests during Bush's nearly six years in Austin. Eighty-eight percent of third-grade students passed the state reading exam in 1999, up from 76 percent in 1994. And African American fourth-graders in Texas ranked first nationally in math scores compared with black fourth-graders in other states who took standardized tests. The key to success has been an accountability system for schools in which reading and other curriculum standards are set by the state and all students are judged by their performance on standardized tests. Bush didn't invent this system—his predecessors as governor did—but he retained and improved it.

Yet he has angered some conservatives by failing to aggressively push for school choice (using public money to let parents send their kids to private schools). Bush says he supports a small pilot program for choice, but he has not championed the idea. Instead, he is much more enthusiastic about ending social promotion (the automatic passing of students to the next grade) and is a strong backer of raising teacher salaries. The governor also is a relentless advocate of literacy programs and has set a goal of making sure every child in Texas can read by third grade. And he signed legislation this year to spend $3.8 billion in new money on public schools. It's not a record of purism for either conservatives or liberals, but it has been popular in Texas.

All this could mean that there will be a healthy debate over education policy in the 2000 campaign. And that would be a refreshing change from the slash-and-burn tactics and personal attacks that have turned so many Americans off to politics in recent years.


    Kenneth T. Walsh is the senior White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.