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Education and the Election | The Nation

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Education and the Election

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By now most of us accept as almost inevitable the idea that education, meaning school reform and access to college, is at or near the top of the political agenda, both in the states and in the national election. As we've heard again and again, not least from Bill Clinton in his last State of the Union address, the economy is in a period of unprecedented expansion, crime is down, welfare rolls have been cut in half and everywhere people want a piece of our technology and its culture. So education, the sine qua non of a global high-tech economy, must be the default issue--or must it?

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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Certainly the major politicians are acting like it. If George W. Bush, the candidate of the Republican Party establishment, has any kind of bragging rights after five years as Governor of Texas, they lie largely in the "Texas Miracle," his state's claims--which appear to be rather inflated--to have raised standards, eliminated social promotion and achieved dramatically improved test scores not only among white middle-class students but among Latinos and African-American students as well. His refrain "no child will be left behind" is the very essence of his "compassionate conservatism." If Clinton, appealing not only to the country and to the voters but to history, has left Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, any sort of compelling domestic agenda beyond fixing Social Security and Medicare, it's in the call for additional federal billions to hire more teachers, restore more run-down and antiquated schools, wire more classrooms to the Internet and provide still more college-tuition tax write-offs to middle-class taxpayers.

Bush's only real GOP challenger, John McCain, doesn't have a serious education record, and neither do the "dwarfs"--Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes--who began the race, all but Keyes now gone. McCain backed legislation that would have converted most federal aid into block grants, and, like the other Republicans, he supports school prayer and vouchers. After his victory in New Hampshire, he made an education speech, his first, in which he also attacked teacher unions, called for merit pay and talked about accountability and higher standards without saying how they should be reached. The speech itself, for all its lack of specifics, was a sign he was trying to move into the mainstream. You are not a serious candidate these days without an education policy, which for most poll-conscious politicians, state and national, means higher standards, high-stakes testing, school accountability and tougher graduation requirements.

Like McCain, Democrat Bill Bradley was until recently an exception to that rule. Bradley had tried to put his emphasis on lifting children out of poverty and on providing universal healthcare. But after his second-place finish in New Hampshire, he unexpectedly delivered a major education speech calling for a doubling of the $8 billion Title I program--money that (in principle, if not always in practice) is directed to schools serving large concentrations of poor children. Like other school reformers, Bradley is also calling for accountability--qualified teachers in poor schools and, within ten years, proof that the funds are helping to close the achievement gap between poor and other students. That's to be coupled with a "choice" provision, obviously designed to undercut Bush's private-voucher proposal, that would allow students in schools that are judged to be failing to take their Title I money to other public schools. Bradley also wants to spend additional federal money to recruit teachers in impoverished areas, expand Head Start and create community centers for children and parents. His basic concern still seems to be more with children and poverty than with school reform, but he will now be less vulnerable to charges from Gore that he has no comprehensive education plan.

It's hard to recall any recent presidential election before 1992, or perhaps even 1996, when every candidate, certainly every Democrat, was expected to have a program to fix the schools. But today that's where the center is. Give the credit, ironically, to Ronald Reagan, George Bush (George I, that is) and other Reagan-era conservatives--Bill Bennett, Chester Finn, Lamar Alexander. With the help of business leaders like IBM chairman Lou Gerstner, they gradually managed to convert not only the issue of economic equity but a whole range of liberally oriented children's issues--healthcare, welfare, nutrition, preschools, daycare, decent housing, recreational opportunities, inner-city youth and job programs--into a debate focused almost exclusively on education and tougher-standards school reform, emphasizing not resources but outcomes. Reagan's interest in schools was pretty much limited to school prayer and tuition tax credits, but the others did the job for him. Beginning in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which warned that "we have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament," and continuing through the early nineties, when Bush I, together with business leaders, proclaimed a set of national goals to pull the nation's schools out of the swamp of failure and waste they were supposedly stuck in, we have been subjected to an ongoing barrage about failing schools, inadequate standards and a global economy that rewards only well-educated economic competitors. If we do not shape them up, somebody--Germany and Japan in 1983; Singapore and Taiwan now--will beat our economic brains out.

Clinton embraced much of that agenda, first as Governor of Arkansas and then in the White House. Better schools and job training were in; welfare was out. This year, with lots of money in the Treasury and with the polls showing growing public willingness to spend more for schools, he's called for additional funds--for teachers, for Head Start, for school repairs, for summer-school programs that "boost achievement," but always with the focus on school reform and accountability. In the words of his State of the Union address, his reform plan "holds states and school districts accountable for progress [and helps them] turn around their worst-performing schools or shut them down."

Some of Clinton's proposals have gone nowhere. Three years ago he pushed hard for a program of "voluntary" national tests--reading in fourth grade, math in eighth--which the states were supposed to adopt but which was derailed by an odd coalition of Congressional liberals and conservatives: The right, said Finn, who had been an Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, doesn't like anything with the word national; the left doesn't like anything with the word testing.

Since then, for Clinton and a lot of other New Democrats, the focus has remained on schools, not on kids, combining requests for some new money with a hefty dose of tougher requirements. Gray Davis of California, the only Democratic governor of a major state, won handily in 1998 by talking about schools--education, he has often said, is his priority number one, number two and number three--but he rarely talks about the lives of children, even though they crucially affect school performance, and he has never allowed the word poverty to cross his lips in public. While he has committed some additional funds to schools, the core of his whips-and-chains approach to school reform is not that different from that of his Republican colleagues in Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia and other states: Impose a tough high school exit exam that all students must pass to get a diploma, hold teachers and principals accountable for the performance of children in their schools and have the state take over those schools that don't measure up.

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