If American voters do not feel threatened by the presence or imminence of a war or a depression, they can turn their attention to higher things when pollsters phone. In mid-March, a bipartisan poll asked its respondents to name the most important issues with which the next president must deal. "Restoring moral values" came first, and "improving education" was second.
Vice President Gore and Governor Bush will treat that first topic as gingerly as they would a hand grenade, but they have hopped onto the second with such enthusiasm that one would think the job for which they are running is that of national school superintendent.
This interest in education is welcome. Nothing is more crucial for the survival, to say nothing of the well-being, of a people than their success in preparing the next generation to meet the challenges they will faceand that is part of what education does.
On the other hand, as a subject for discussion, education provokes more windy discourse than any other. For instance, in a speech in Dallas, Tex., on April 28, Mr. Gore favored the grand manner: "Today I am proposing a new national commitment to bring revolutionary improvement to our schools...."
In fact, neither candidate plans to revolutionize American elementary and secondary schools. Their main proposals are much alikewith one important exceptionbut they are not very adventurous, and they may not be realistic.
When the vice president and the governor talk about education they are bound to sound alike because they are looking at the same set of problemsa cluster that includes the need to raise the performance both of students and teachers, the need to recruit more of those who give promise of becoming effective teachers, the need to diminish the achievement gap between low-income children in failing urban schools and those in adequately financed suburban schools and the need to find ways for Washington to help solve these problems without trespassing on the principle of state and local control of schools.
This similarity is heightened by Mr. Gore’s use of what former Senator Bill Bradley called, more in bitterness perhaps than jest, the tactic of a "Co-op Kid." Let Governor Bush propose, as he did on March 28, a $5-billion, five-year literacy plan aimed at insuring that every child will have actually learned to read by third grade. The vice president will immediately retort that this is just what the Clinton-Gore administration has been doing. Let Governor Bush promise to hold states receiving federal funds accountable for results, and Mr. Gore will say in effect, as he did in Dallas, "Me too."
Along with this rhetorical punching and counter-punching, both candidates are promising to devote more federal money to education. Mr. Gore would be the bigger spender. He promises to introduce a program that would expend $115 billion over the next 10 years. Most of this would go for school construction, the recruitment of new teachers and better salaries for all teachers. Governor Bush proposes to spend $13.5 billion over the next five years, and that would include his literacy plan and rewards for schools that improve.
To a considerable extent, the vice president and the governor are building schoolhouses in the sky. They would fund their education initiatives from a supposed budget surplus. But Mr. Gore says that surplus will disappear if Mr. Bush’s proposed tax cuts are enacted. The Bush strategists reply that the same effect would follow from the Gore plan to use the surplus to reduce the national debt.
Whatever the fiscal case may turn out to be, the next president’s plans for improving U.S. schools cannot be implemented unless the Congress legislates and finances them. Both President Bush and President Clinton declared that education was their number one priority, but both found their plans often frustrated by an uncooperative Congress.
In their turn, both Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush have been saying that they too want to be an "education president." Although both concentrate on public education, there is one significant difference between them. Mr. Bush is readier to recognize the existence of nonpublic schools and their achievements. He backs a modest voucher program like the one now in place in Milwaukee. It would provide low-income families with alternatives to the failing public schools in their inner-city neighborhoods. The vouchers could be used at any private school, including parochial schools.
Although Vice President Gore has sent his own children to private schools, his education perspective is limited to public schools, and he rejects all voucher schemes, even those for the poor. Curious. His Web site reports that "Al Gore knows...all our children need a world-class education." Perhaps it depends on how "all" is defined.