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.