Education a linchpin for presidential platforms
Bush, Gore campaigns frame issue as essential to their broader goals
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a record number of students starting school across the country last week -- and with both major party presidential candidates canvassing the nation to promote their education platforms in advance of the November general election -- the future of the nation's public school system has become the subject of great speculation.
Should Republican nominee George W. Bush get the go-ahead to move his belongings into the White House, state education agencies could be granted unprecedented levels of autonomy in determining how federal education money is spent, and in setting strict improvement guidelines for failing schools.
If Democrat Al Gore gets the public's nod on Nov. 7, the role of the federal government in resurrecting and improving struggling sectors of the public education system could be increased as he pushes Congress to appropriate more money to fund his education priorities.
At the top of Gore's wish list: the hiring of thousands of new teachers, and the initiation of a massive effort to repair crumbling inner-city school buildings.
The differences are traditionally latter-day 'Democrat versus Republican.' Bush favors loosening the federal government's influence on the machinations of local systems, arguing that "one size does not fit all," and local officials should know best how to go about their business.
Gore, while not necessarily calling for tighter federal control over localities, firmly believes that the central government -- beginning simply with its role as a gatherer of revenue -- must play a lead role in efforts to reduce classroom size and boost student performance.
But underneath the traditional conflict lies an intriguing twist. Gore's plans to improve student performance and teacher working conditions tie in to a more complex web of ideals that aim to keep national economic prosperity at record levels, while improving job and savings prospects for the middle class and low wage earners.
Bush has described similarly lofty goals, but has deftly added a another factor intended to appeal not only to core conservatives, but to draw attention from those who may not regularly vote for a Republican candidate.
Bush -- in education policy speeches delivered as long as a year ago -- has said that reading levels must be improved to better life prospects for all children. But the public education system, he has argued further, has a more nebulous task at hand. It must be charged with turning out good, solid citizens through increased discipline, and character education programs.
Bush's quest for character improvement
Bush's broad education plan, which has been central to his presidential campaign since he delivered three key policy speeches last fall, calls for the establishment of education standards and a testing regimen for each of the nation's public schools.
The federal government's role, Bush has asserted, should be limited -- the Department of Education should only act to get the process moving and to keep everyone on the same timetable, he has said, with each state and locality setting its own standards and testing procedures.
The government would then review the extent of viability of the local tests.
Bush calls for a strict regimen of accountability from school districts and individual schools during a roundtable meeting on education August 28 in Portland, Maine
The testing period, Bush says, should last some three years. If poorly performing schools do not effect a marked improvement in student reading levels and comprehensive test scores, they'll have their federal money yanked away at the end of those three years.
"Step one has to be to align authority and responsibility with local schools," Bush said at a campaign stop in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, last Friday. "We should set high standards and expect the best. Low standards equals low results."
What would have been destined for schools would then be divided up and turned into education vouchers for parents -- estimated to be worth some $1,500 per child per school year -- to be used to pay tuition costs at privately run institutions, if the parents so decide.
Additionally, Bush would lead an effort to develop so-called charter schools by investing $300 million in a charter school homestead fund that would provide $3 billion in loan guarantees to 200 such institutions.
Bush has also called for tripling federal funding for character education, arguing that not only should discipline and disposition be improved in the schools to aid learning, but the creation of caring, well-rounded people should be a significant goal of the teaching community.
In a speech delivered in New Hampshire last November, Bush said schools should be encouraged to create academic programs based on strong values and character building. These programs, he said, need not be based on religious preference, though children of various religious faiths should be allowed to demonstrate their devotion on school property, during school hours.
The proposal dovetails nicely with Bush's view of a more compassionate, dignified society -- a society Bush has pledged to represent in his frequent pledges to "restore honor and dignity to the White House."
But while Bush's plan to hold schools accountable for student performance has been lauded in conservative circles -- and in many newspaper editorials -- his character education proposals are raising eyebrows in the teaching community.
"Who can be against character education?" said Tom Roderick, Executive Director of the group Educators for Social Responsibility. "But I think these things need to be questioned."
"Do these programs incorporate the latest thinking, the latest research about what actually works with children?" Roderick asked. "Children need to be taught skills to avoid things like schoolyard fights."
Roderick, whose organization encourages conflict resolution and mediation amongst quarreling students, said that teachers often fear the insertion of religion into difficult classroom situations.
Smaller class sizes championed
Teaching professionals, and their unions, almost uniformly fall behind Gore's line of argument on educational improvement. That argument is based in large part on a battle the Clinton administration has fought with GOP-controlled Congress for the last three years -- class sizes must be reduced so students are granted the sort of individual attention they each deserve.
That reduction, Clinton and Gore have argued, would be achieved through the hiring of some 100,000 new teachers nationwide -- many school systems are experiencing a dire shortage of properly trained teachers at present -- and by mounting an ambitious school construction and renovation effort to provide extra space for these many new, smaller classes.
Gore tells an audience at Delgado Community College in New Orleans on September 8 that he plans to boost college attendance and graduation rates, in part, by making college tuition tax-deductible
"There is an important role for the federal government, and that is to build schools and pay teachers more," said Sandra Feldman, president of the National Federation of Teachers, an advocacy group whose main goal is to improve working conditions and compensation levels for its members.
"Parents," Feldman continued, "want to hear that there will be help, better discipline in schools, and support for good quality teaching. They want to know how (the candidates) are going to do that."
Gore has called for a 10-year, $115 billion public education investment plan paid out of a trust fund and financed with 10 percent of the federal budget surplus that is not to be dedicated to Social Security or debt reduction.
He supports national education standards, but rather than deny funding to lagging schools, says they should be shut down and reopened under new administrations. Individual teachers, Gore has said, should be subjected to routine evaluations, and should be granted merit pay.
He is strictly opposed to school vouchers for private, religious and home schools, arguing that the diversion of federal money to private schools will only further degrade the public system.
The vice president has also proposed a series of initiatives to help families pay their education and job training costs, including tax deductions for college tuition; so-called Life-Long Learning investment accounts, and a National Tuition Savings Program.
Gore has argued that proper attention to individual students is essential in grades 1-12. The result, he has intimated, will be higher college admissions and graduation rates, thus boosting the number of highly skilled people in the workplace.
The methods may be similar, but the drive for both candidates differs. Gore links his education plans to the economy and job growth, for the most part, while Bush links his own to economics, character, and even reduced crime rates.
And while it is clear that education is one of the most important issues this election season to the voting public, some factors need be kept in mind.
A number of issues-based polls conducted in the course of the last year have indicated that many middle-class Americans believe the education system needs improvement, but high percentages of these voters still express some level of confidence in public schools.
And, in most cases, the federal government only contributes some 8.5 percent of the full amount of funds spent on education. States and localities supply the rest.