The Candidates Rush To The Head Of The Class

Presidential rivals strain for an edge on education

It's that time of year again, when 53 million kids return to school and Presidential candidates trip over each other to seize the public's imagination on education issues.

Out to prove that he's even more committed to kids than his boss, Vice-President Al Gore is backing an expansion of experimental "charter" schools, universal pre-kindergarten, and more federal money for school construction, teachers, and technology. Texas Governor George W. Bush likes education vouchers, wants to mandate state standards, and would give the federal Education Dept. jurisdiction over the Head Start program. Democrat Bill Bradley is calling for better teacher training and national standards. Republican candidate Steve Forbes would send federal education dollars back to the states in the form of block grants and let local officials decide how to spend them. "Everybody running for office, from President to dogcatcher, has a position on education," scoffs one business lobbyist.

One reason for the multiple agendas is the confusion over what the voters want. It's clear that improving public schools is a top priority both for parents and for business leaders. But when it comes to doing that, politicians need an advanced-placement course in opinion polling to craft a safe platform. Parents, for example, appear to be genuinely conflicted. They support the egalitarian concept of public education and are leery of funneling tax money to religious schools. Yet they are deeply concerned about whether the public system and its suffocating bureaucracy can be reformed.

With President Clinton and the Republican Congress engaged in continual bickering over school policy, parents and business groups are running out of patience. "Anything that can stimulate needed change should be considered," says State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. CEO Edward B. Rust Jr., who chairs the Business Roundtable's education task force. "I don't think anybody out there is doing a good enough job educating kids for the world they are going to see."

The problem will only grow larger in coming years. The number of school kids in the U.S. is at an all-time high, eclipsing the mark set at the peak of the baby boom. Suburban schools are bursting at the seams; aging inner-city schools are decaying. And school districts are facing a severe teacher shortage. No wonder 66% of Americans surveyed this summer by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council said there is "a crisis" in public education.

Most of all, parents say they want the right to choose their kids' school. Charter schools--public schools run by corporations, private foundations, or educators and exempted from many bureaucratic rules--are endorsed by 63% of adults. But there is also support for voucher programs that use tax dollars to send students to private or religious schools. Some 54% of adults--including a majority of Democrats--say vouchers "promote equal opportunity." Vouchers are particularly popular among working-class Catholics and minorities. Smelling a winner, Republicans have seized on vouchers as their preferred fix.

But the GOP could push too hard. Americans don't want vouchers if they gut public education. Given a choice between improving public schools and providing vouchers, just 28% of Americans would pick vouchers, says a Gallup Poll released Aug. 25. Vouchers also face the church-state hurdle. Legal scholars expect the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the matter in the next two years.

There is also no conclusive evidence that voucher schools would be a major improvement. Pilot projects involving vouchers in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida have yielded mixed results--although Kenneth Metcalf, an Indiana University education professor studying the Cleveland experience, reports "small but significant improvement" in the language arts skills of voucher students. Business leaders are divided over the issue, but some are willing to experiment. "There are risks to public funding of private education," says William T. Solomon, CEO of Austin Industries Inc., a Dallas-based construction company. "But I think those risks are worth incurring, at least on a trial basis, because what we have is not working."

DANGEROUS TASK. For Republican candidates, fine-tuning an education-reform pitch is a balancing act. They must assuage the powerful conservatives who would be happy with no federal involvement in schools. But they also must find votes among non-ideological parents who just want their children to get enough skills to go to college or get a good job. In a Sept. 2 speech, Bush tried to please both sides: For the right, he promised to punish schools that don't measure up and give their low-income students vouchers for tutoring or private-school tuition. At the same time, he proposed expanding the Education Dept.'s role by giving it jurisdiction over Head Start, a program that conservatives loathe.

For this compromise, Bush has drawn heavy fire from the Republican Party's right wing. Former Reagan domestic policy adviser Gary Bauer, a rival for the White House, dismissed the Texas governor's plan as "Gore Light." Voters don't mind, however: A mid-July Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll found Bush and Gore dead even on the issue. Bush tied Gore among those earning under $25,000 a year. And his policies were preferred by voters in the Midwest, a key battleground.

Meanwhile, polls still show Democrats firmly ahead on education issues. Their supporters include teachers' unions, which are suspicious of the various GOP proposals. American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman says she's glad the Republicans now identify education reform as a key issue. "Right now, there is a substantive discussion going on," she says, "and I consider that a victory." Finally, business and labor can agree on something.

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