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?

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.

For all the talk about schools in the 2000 presidential campaign, the federal government has historically had only a minor role in school policy. Of all school funding, only about 7 percent comes from the Feds; the rest is almost entirely state and local. But federal policy has nonetheless become crucially important, both in setting a tone that states may follow and in designating how federal funds may be spent.

While the front-runners, Bush and Gore, share the same emphasis on the school as the locus for improving children’s prospects and reducing the economic inequities children face, the differences between them are considerable. If Clinton was the original New Democrat–a candidate pulling his party to the center–Bush may turn out to be the quintessential New Republican, trying to take his party from the opposite direction toward the same general target. Bush does support school prayer, backed a voucher proposal in Texas and clearly still favors school choice in all its forms, but the most concrete element of his platform, first announced at a conference of Latino business leaders in Los Angeles last fall, would underline school accountability by taking all federal Title I money from low-performing schools–those that did not improve test scores for three years–and give it in the form of vouchers to the families of the disadvantaged students that Title I is supposed to help. Unlike with Bradley’s Title I plan, the parents could then use those funds (worth about $1,500 per student) to pay for after-school tutoring or help pay tuition for private school.

The Bush school-voucher proposal is quite similar to the voucher plan that his brother Jeb, the Governor of Florida, got through his state’s legislature early in 1999, and that was launched in a few schools last fall. It allows children in the state’s lowest-performing schools–always measured by test scores–to get the $4,000 the state spends on their education and use it to attend any school, public or private. Putting aside the question of the substantive merits of such plans, what’s significant in the political context is that they are being pushed not as all-purpose free-market solutions, which was the classic conservative argument, but rather as equity and opportunity for poor children trapped in terrible schools, and as the logical next step in making schools accountable. The Florida law, passed with the support of the Urban League in Miami and the votes of some black Democrats in the Florida legislature, reflects the growing support for vouchers in minority communities and among black and Latino leaders.

It was no accident that Bush first made his pitch to Latinos in Los Angeles. If he’s elected and the Republicans retain control of Congress, you can expect to see proposals linking school choice, accountability and the plight of poor children near the top of the 2001 agenda. Even if those proposals fail, choice for poor children in poor schools will confront Democrats, most of whom are far too much in thrall to the teachers’ unions, with an increasingly tough moral and political challenge among their low-income and minority constituents. The issue can leave them “arguing that kids should be forced to go to failing schools,” said Tom Loveless, an education policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “That really is a hard argument to defend.”

Gore, who has the strong support of unions, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, vehemently opposes vouchers–he berated Bradley for having supported experimental voucher proposals when he was in the Senate. Perhaps because of Bradley’s presence in the early primaries, Gore has also been pushing school proposals that look more generous than Clinton’s, among them a $115 billion Education Reform Trust Fund (from the politically bottomless budget surplus) to finance increased federal school spending over the next ten years, including $50 billion for “universal” preschool programs. Some of the money would also go to raise teacher salaries, create a national teacher corps (an idea recycled from the sixties) and reduce class sizes, a mantra beloved by both teachers and parents, despite its so-far unproven results. In addition, there are Gore’s longstanding attempts to bring technology into the schools, wire every classroom and abolish the digital divide.

Those proposals, particularly for expanded preschools, combined with Gore’s record of support for after-school programs, restore a piece of the children’s issue to the larger picture, but only a piece. The presumption going into this election–a presumption widely accepted these days by politicians, editorial writers and many others–is that with the possible exception of marginally expanded healthcare and increases in the earned-income tax credit, the only real instrument for furthering social and economic equity is education. Yet while education necessarily plays a major role, and while schools should not be allowed the implicit alibi that some kids can’t learn, the schools cannot do it all. By definition half their students will be below average on whatever test is given: It should also be obvious that what children bring to school from home, from the community and from the culture is as important as what they find in school; that not all jobs will be royal roads to high-tech riches; and that the ills of the economy and society can’t all be addressed in the classroom. It’s those issues, issues that always informed the politics of the left, that have been leached out of the national debate.

For anyone who wants to measure the success of the “Reagan Revolution,” their absence is one important indicator. But there’s another as well. For more than a decade, the political debate (as opposed to the educators’ debates) about reform within the schools has largely been an argument between center and right: charters and tougher standards as alternatives to vouchers and the free market; increased federal aid for middle-class college students (which is mostly a direct subsidy to colleges) as opposed to the Republicans’ across-the-board tax cuts and no boost in federal aid at all. The old progressive side of the case, reinforced and updated by critics like Alfie Kohn–the case for what’s called “authentic assessment,” open-ended essay tests and portfolios as measures of achievement, hands-on curriculums and experiential learning, the de-emphasis of test-based achievement in favor of “the love of learning,” all of which many educators still embrace–is largely missing from the political arena, as is any serious push to put more money into Pell Grants and other means-tested support for low-income college students. The political dynamics in Congress, even one controlled by Democrats, have always tended to allow districts to convert Title I and other funds ostensibly earmarked for poor children into general aid. That makes the needs of the disadvantaged, both in the cities and in rural areas, both in schools and out, even more crucial in any liberal agenda. The urgency of these needs is apparent from the recent findings of the Growing Up in Poverty Project at Berkeley and Yale, which show the detrimental effects on children’s social growth and school readiness when they are forced into inadequate daycare after their mothers have left welfare.

The center has in most cases prevailed over the right in debates about education reform. Only two states have voted for vouchers. But many state officials, fearing the impending consequences on middle-class students of their high school exit exams and their other whips-and-chains reforms, are now having sober second thoughts and either postponing the fatal day, lowering the requirements or dropping them altogether. That could soon raise a whole new set of issues: If test scores don’t rise appreciably or if the current reforms are otherwise perceived to fail–if the center doesn’t hold–who gets the next shot, and in what way? Some teachers believe the whole high-stakes testing drive is simply a setup for the vouchers to come. In California some Silicon Valley deep pockets are already collecting signatures for another voucher initiative. But there also seems to be a renewed awareness that the schools can’t do it all, and that the broader lives of children must be addressed. The choice between those two courses may be the real education issue for the coming years, both in the states and nationally. And so far, our serious presidential candidates are hardly discussing that at all.