Will Republicans Make Clinton The Education President?

Education is one of those perennial issues that's wildly popular with voters yet never hits any hot buttons during Presidential campaigns. But 1996 may be the exception.

Congressional Republicans, determined to balance the budget, are targeting virtually every federal education program from Head Start to college aid to the war on drugs in schools. What's more, most GOP Presidential candidates are signing on to the Christian Coalition's crusade to strip Washington of any say over what goes on in the classroom. Topping the group's agenda: closing the Education Dept., providing vouchers for private schools, and allowing school prayer.

But the White House believes the Republicans are handing a winning issue to President Clinton, who's even picking up some support from GOP pals in Corporate America, such as TRW Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. "The information era and the knowledge-based economy are driven by education," says Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. "It's foolhardy to retreat now."

That has become a prominent campaign mantra for Clinton, who has been on a frenetic journey to classrooms across the country since Labor Day. At a Sept. 11 roundtable with college students in Carbondale, Ill., he railed against the GOP for producing a balanced-budget plan that would "make the American people less well-educated."

INCENTIVES. To drive home the point, the President is enlisting corporate chieftains, who worry that Republican cuts in education will make it difficult to maintain a highly skilled workforce. On Sept. 6, a small group of CEOs met with Clinton and promised to lobby the Senate to maintain $372 million for Goals 2000, a program that provides money to states that raise achievement. States can adopt standards created by federally funded panels or develop their own. But critics argue that the feds should have no role in standards, even voluntary ones, and the House has voted to end the program.

The CEOs--including Joseph T. Gorman of TRW, John E. Pepper of Procter & Gamble, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of IBM, David R. Whitwam of Whirlpool, and Kent C. Nelson of UPS--helped lobby for passage of the bill last year. Now, they're writing to senators to save it. Gorman says he hopes business can "depoliticize" the issue "and get the facts on the table so that people understand how critically important this really is." Adds Nelson: "Public education is key...to our continued ability to compete."

Under such pressure, Senate Republicans are likely to restore some Goals 2000 funding. But the GOP still thinks the theme of government encroachment plays well on the campaign stump. GOP Presidential hopefuls stepped up the attacks at the Christian Coalition's annual convention Sept. 8-9 in Washington. Vows by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and his rivals to shut down the Education Dept. won the loudest applause. They also think calls for vouchers will woo voters who believe tax dollars are funding inferior schools.

The louder the cheering, the better, say Clintonites. They believe harsh GOP rhetoric will lead voters to conclude that Republicans don't care about education. Some proof: polls showing 80% of respondents oppose elimination of the Education Dept. The White House also is betting that most Americans will feel uneasy about GOP ties to the Christian Coalition.

In his fight for more education dollars, Clinton must be careful that he doesn't come off as a defender of the status quo who thinks every problem can be solved with more federal bucks and rules. The public rejected that approach last fall. But when it comes to education, the voters may yet give the President an A and send Republicans to the corner.

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