Bush, Gore put high priority on education

Thursday, September 28th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES – This presidential campaign sometimes sounds like a school board election.

George W. Bush has spent his week discussing school safety, early reading programs and accountability from failing schools. Al Gore likes to talk about the need for new teachers, smaller classes and modern school buildings.

Once the province of local government, education is becoming a mainstay in presidential politics, analysts said. The reason is simple: Voters demand it, having come to realize that knowledge is the key to success in the information age.

"In a society where upward mobility is so important, education is the issue that helps us realize those opportunities," said Karlyn Bowman, who analyzes polls for the American Enterprise Institute. "You have to get where the voters are, and that's what Bush and Gore are doing."

Ms. Bowman and other analysts said this election has produced something new: a Republican who is making education a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. The GOP has long sought a reduced federal role in education, and the party's platform called for abolition of the Department of Education as recently as 1996.

Criticizing what he called "the education recession" of the Clinton-Gore years, Mr. Bush said that people for too long equated the GOP's opposition to the department with opposition to education in general.

"I know this may sound a little different from most Republicans that have run in the past," Mr. Bush said at an appearance in suburban Portland, Ore. "I've got great hope for public education. It's been a gateway for success for so many citizens."

On Wednesday, Mr. Bush wrapped up a three-day Western tour at Ascension Catholic School in South-Central Los Angeles. He discussed ways the federal government can help ensure safety at places such as the school, which is across the street from the scene of a drive-by killing four years ago.

The Texas governor does call for a limited role by Washington, noting that the federal government finances only about 7 percent of the total school budgets nationwide.

His total package is $47.6 billion over 10 years, devoted largely to making sure schools reach certain educational goals, especially for low-income children.

Otherwise, Mr. Bush would give federal money to parents to help pay for alternatives such as private schools. This is as far as Mr. Bush will go in discussing school vouchers, the major education issue for previous Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and George Bush, the governor's father.

"It's very unusual at the presidential level for the Republican to be taking the lead on education," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration. "This is a real role reversal."

Not everybody is convinced the change of strategy is sincere. During his appearance at Ascension, protesters at a public school across the street held up signs saying, "Bush Will Fail Our Kids" and displayed a mock report card that gave the governor an F in a variety of subjects.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, director of government relations for the National Education Association, said educators are looking for partnerships with the federal government. Ms. Teasley questioned whether the Bush plan would create a strong enough bond, calling it "certainly not as visionary as the vice president's plan."

Mr. Gore proposes to spend $115 billion over 10 years. His proposals would help local districts hire 100,000 new teachers and fix up old buildings to expand preschool services. The vice president is also offering tax deductions for college tuition.

"The voters are not looking for itty-bitty problem solving," Ms. Teasley said. "They are looking for major investments and answers."

Some Democrats question just how dedicated conservative Republicans would be to helping public education should they win power.

"Traditionally, Republicans have been against increased funding at the federal level," Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera said. "So I think he would have to fight his own party to see even his limited proposal put into place."

Some Bush supporters said Mr. Gore is the one who is a bad bet for education. "He hasn't done anything for eight years; why would he do something now?" said Sylvia Perham, a retired saleswoman who heard Mr. Bush speak at an airplane hangar in Spokane, Wash.

Carolyn Reed, a retired teacher from Spokane, is among those who say they distrust federal involvement in local schools but believe Mr. Bush is striking the right balance.

"It's about time we gave education back to the states [and] out of the hands of the federal government," she said. "It's out of control."

Some analysts wondered what the Republican approach might be if Mr. Bush loses.

Mr. Finn, the former Reagan education official, said it would not be wise to return to attacks on the Department of Education. Others said Republicans couldn't go back even if they wanted to. Too many voters, they said, expect presidential candidates to talk about education.

Said Ms. Teasley: "I don't think at the national level there will be a retrenchment, because of what voters are saying."


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