Campaigning on educational issues. Debate among candidates shows they need to do more homework
Chapel Hill, N.C.
SEVEN days after the first presidential candidates' debate ever to focus on the subject of schooling, educators are still elated about all the attention. For the first time, national candidates are learning the vernacular of school reform, they say - grappling with testy issues such as merit pay for teachers, public school ``choice'' proposals, and the federal role in education at a time of greater social need but tighter fiscal restraint.Skip to next paragraph
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``Four years ago, these were non-issues,'' says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. ``We're glad the candidates are taking them up.''
Concerns about economic, political, and social dislocation have forced education into the limelight so quickly that ``it's startling - I keep pinching myself,'' remarks Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation.
But despite the daylong fanfare and effervescence, the candidates still have a lot of homework to do, these educators say. The debates proved that the presidential hopefuls are quick studies on policy issues, but it's too early to tell whether their statements are vote-getting rhetoric or preludes to workable ideas.
``On the whole, the debate was pretty flat - I didn't hear a single new idea,'' says Dennis Doyle of the Hudson Institute, who advised Gary Hart and John Glenn in 1984.
``Promoting an issue like education, politicians feel like they are on the side of the angels, they get applause - and this may keep them from making some of the tough choices that need to be made,'' Dr. Boyer says.
Many candidates made basic factual or policy errors during the debate: One of the two Republicans, for example, said more help is needed since SAT scores are still falling. In fact, SAT scores have been rising since 1980.
One Democrat suggested that the school year be lengthened from 170 days to 220 - this to be paid for by ``defense savings from new kinds of arms control arrangements with the Soviets.'' Policy analysts later noted that even if the federal government took on this role and spent the tens of billions of dollars it would cost, the idea still ignores the fact that arms control would at first force greater spending on conventional military preparedness.
Insiders say such mistakes are not unusual for a new issue early in a campaign.
As expected, Democrats focused mainly on improving teacher salaries and on the federal role in education - while Republicans stressed local responsibility for education, and a need for better accountability and results.
Four main themes, however, were common to both parties. First, the issue of disadvantaged, ``at risk'' youth - described in a Committee on Economic Development report released last week as being 30 percent of all US youth, costing the nation $240 billion a year in welfare and lost earnings, and constituting 23 million Americans ``unwilling'' to work by the year 2000.
Second, the issue of teacher professionalism - increased autonomy and accountability for teachers.
Third, the federal role in education - what should it be?