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Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 1999 /5 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Bush's education problem -- QUICK, WHO SAID THIS: "Each year the national government spends $15 billion on our public schools. I believe we must change the way we invest that money, to support what works and to stop supporting what does not work"?

If you identified it as coming from Texas Gov. George W. Bush's (R) big education speech last week in Los Angeles, you couldn't be blamed.

Bush did say -- and got front-page play for it - that "in my administration, federal money will no longer flow to failure. Public funds must be spent on things that work."

But the test quote above comes from President Clinton's 1999 State of the Union address -- serving to show that, rhetorically and substantively, there's been a dramatic convergence of Republicans and Democrats around the ideas of standards, testing and accountability in education.

Or, as Vice President Al Gore put it in his first big education speech on May 16, "Every state and every school district should be required to identify failing schools and work to turn them around.... And if (they) don't improve quickly, they should be shut down fairly and fast and reopened under a new principal."

Bush and Clinton noted that in the last five years, the number of states publishing annual report cards on local schools has gone from zero to 36, and the number of states offering charter school alternatives has gone from eight to 35.

According to a Department of Education analysis of Bush's speech, almost every standards and accountability proposal in it already is either in federal law or part of Clinton's agenda.

One exception is the transfer of Project Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, but legislation has already been passed to beef up its emphasis on reading rather than day care.

Not to worry, though. There are enough differences between front-runners Bush and Gore to offer voters a decent choice on education policy. The differences arise from classic ideological differences over "choice," money and federal power.

Bush's main new proposal was to give out vouchers to the parents of children in chronic "failing" schools that they could use to pay for tutoring, transfer to another public school or tuition in a private school.

Gore proposed only that "parents should have more choice in their children's public schools, especially those whose children are stuck in low-performing schools." Bush's adoption of the narrow voucher plan pushed through in Florida by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (R), represents a significant departure from past GOP "choice" proposals to encourage large-scale transfers out of public schools.

At the same time, however, Gore's refusal to allow any public funds to be used for transfers to private schools reflects Democrats' lock-step loyalty to teachers unions that trumps their concern for thousands of children condemned to ignorance and poverty.

Meantime, if Republicans show signs of developing a compassionate conservative approach to choice, Democrats still have the edge on willingness to pay for educational improvements.

Bush's speech contained not a hint that either the federal government or the states should be spending more to produce "world class" schools -- even to help "failing" schools improve.

Clinton and Gore, on the other hand, have unleashed a torrent of new spending proposals, ranging from a $6 billion matching program to help states build or modernize 6,000 schools to $600 million to keep schools open for after-hours tutoring and $1.4 billion to reduce class size in early grades.

In addition, Gore is proposing -- without saying how much it will cost -- universal voluntary pre-school, a Teacher Corps offering $10,000 in college aid, reduced class size in all grades and connecting every classroom and school library to the Internet.

Not only is none of this on Bush's agenda, but Clinton and Gore are having a field day bashing Congressional Republicans for proposing to cut Clinton's education budget as part of their plan to cut taxes.

Clinton charges that current House budget allocations will require nearly a 20 percent cut in current spending on education in fiscal 2000 and, if the GOP tax cut were to become law, a 50 percent cut over 10 years.

Republicans dismiss this as hogwash and predict that by year's end, the GOP will nearly match Clinton on total school funding - while giving local districts more leeway on how to spend it.

That's the final key difference between Bush and Gore, although it isn't as great as might have been expected. Bush emphasizes local and parental control of school policy, but he's not for dismantling the Education Department or giving money to states with no strings.

Gore and Clinton repeatedly emphasize "requiring" states to do this and that. If a bad school is reorganized, for instance, Gore would ensure that there is "full peer evaluation for every teacher," presumably with a federal bureaucrat overseeing the process.

The good news is that there could be a productive education debate in the coming election - and the winner is likely to be a real "education president."

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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