Washington — AS election '88 approaches, expect to see education issues getting lots of attention from presidential contenders. This comes as a result of a growing recognition that education is a major concern to many Americans, and that it may be the key to the nation's economic well-being. ``We are going to be dealing with education pretty heavily this time around,'' says Charles B. Saunders Jr., senior vice-president of the American Council on Education. He is hearing from a number of campaigns that internal ``polls are showing a real pronounced interest among the general public ... education is popping up at the top of the list of issues people are concerned about.''
Candidates are quick to pick up on popular concerns, so education has been selected by many candidates as an issue worthy of mention as they campaign across the country.
``We are encouraged by what candidates are saying,'' says Kate Krell, director of public relations at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). ``There seems to be an honest commitment and a clear recognition that this is not just a `kids are wonderful' issue.''
It is true that education has moved out of a narrow interest category. America's system of education is now linked closely to the country's economic performance and other social issues like welfare reform.
``We are facing a challenge as to how we can maintain and improve our standard of living,'' says Rep. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. The key, he says, is to ``retain and improve our edge in technology,'' because it is ``the only thing that really gives us hope.'' The only way to make sure of that, according to Mr. Jeffords and others, is to continually improve young people's access to education and to provide the appropriate facilities, like computers and modern research labs. The problem is becoming too large for any candidate to ignore.
Even so, few candidates have developed specific positions on education. Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois had long championed education issues in the House of Representatives before he became a senator. Within the education community his reputation gives him a leg up on the other presidential contenders. Vice-President George Bush has called for special savings accounts to help parents save for college expenses and has made education one of the first major issues he has addressed in his campaign. Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont, also seeking the Republican nomination, has issued fact sheets calling for a voucher system allowing parents of disadvantaged children to pick the school of their choice, and for federally guaranteed loans for those seeking higher education or retraining. All the candidates are expected to release more-detailed policy statements later in the fall.
``At this point, it is impossible for us to say this person has this particular idea which we really like,'' says Ms. Krell of AFT. ``The candidates are [in the process of] developing their positions in some detail.''
Mr. Jeffords does not expect the presidential candidates to take up education issues in much more than ``motherhood-and-apple-pie tones.'' He recognizes that dealing in specifics is difficult. ``When you ... talk about excellence and ... improving education at the local school level, you are talking about raising teachers' salaries, improving attitudes about teaching as a profession, and retraining teachers to take better advantage of modern technology,'' he says. ``When you start talking those issues, you are talking about raising money at the grass roots. That's not easy to do,'' he says.
The federal role in education is not very large. Only about 7 to 9 percent of the funds used by the nation's schools comes from Washington. The primary responsibility rests with state and local governments. The federal government does, however, play a major role in guaranteeing access to schools by all segments of society, providing equality of opportunity within the schools, and assessing whether the educational system is meeting national needs. It is this latter concern that seems to be getting the most attention, most likely because it ties in with other popular issues like competitiveness, productivity, and the US trade deficit.
Greg Humphrey, director of legislation at AFT, sees the education issue rising to the top of the country's policy agenda because of a ``demographic watershed'' now occurring throughout the US. He refers to the 1950s and '60s when dropouts were absorbed into good blue-collar jobs like steel production and auto manufacturing.
``Those days now are pretty well past,'' Mr. Humphrey says. ``In order to get a well paying job out of school you are going to have to have [higher] education skills.'' The politicians need to help the education system bring minorities and disadvantaged young people ``up to speed so that they can compete, take their rightful place, and provide the manpower that society needs. If that doesn't happen,'' he warns, ``there will be bottlenecks and shortages of trained people, [and] ferocious competition for college graduates to [fill] the jobs.