WASHINGTON — IF the presidential campaign lens reflected more on Democratic candidate Bill Clinton's issues than on his character, the Arkansas governor says, his experience as a state leader would shine brightly.
Governor Clinton is particularly proud of his record as an educational reformer in the poor, rural South. He says his work there demonstrates what he can accomplish across the United States.
Near rock-bottom of the nation's state economies, Arkansas has suffered from the country's worst economic ills: a poorly educated work force, inadequate research and development to bolster industry in highly competitive markets, and insufficient capital to start up new firms and expand those that exist.
Struggling not to fall further behind, Arkansas and other poor Southern states enacted watershed education reform legislation during the 1980s. Clinton faced the greatest challenge.
When he took office in 1979, education expenditures, teacher salaries, and the percentage of college graduates were the lowest in the nation. He saw poor educational standards and a low-skilled work force as the primary obstacles to economic development.
Through tax hikes Clinton boosted education spending and raised teachers' salaries and he tried to weed out incompetent teachers by mandating certification tests, notes David Osborne, who documented Clinton's and other governors' efforts in his book "Laboratories of Democracy: A New Breed of Governor Creates Models for National Growth."
Clinton has also tried to lure international corporations to the state with a host of investment incentives and low Arkansan wages. He argued that a broader tax base would provide more funding for education.
Arkansas banker Cecil Cupp Jr., who chairs Arkansas Bank and Trust and the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, supported the higher taxes to finance education. A former Bush backer, he's now supporting Clinton's presidential bid. If past is prologue, says Mr. Cupp, Clinton "will be sensitive to [the nation's] industrial development and work force [vocational training] education so that American labor can be more competitive with Japan and Europe."
Education experts do not dispute that Clinton raised voters' consciousness about the link between better education and economic mobility.
But they note that despite dramatic increases in the state's educational budget, real progress has been slow. Under Clinton's stewardship, Arkansas state schools have edged up only slightly from their near-bottom rank in national standing.
Today, on the campaign trail, Clinton talks of "investing in human capital," and "empowering the individual with more responsibilities and opportunities." But beyond the rhetoric is a basic question: Will Clinton be able to transfer his priorities on a state level into leadership goals on the national level?
Chester Finn Jr., author of "We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future," cautions against assuming that what Clinton fought for on a state level can be transferred to the national level.
"There is a fundamental difference between what a governor and a president can do. A governor is responsible for education in the state, while the president is a national leader, a figure who persuades people to do something differently on the state and local level," he says.
Primary and secondary schools are almost entirely outside the purview of the federal government, which provides only 6 percent of the funding for kindergarten through Grade 12 schooling. Through tax revenues, state and local municipalities finance the remaining 94 percent, and local school districts run the schools. Without raising taxes or the deficit, Clinton will be hard-pressed to make good on his promise to increase federal outlays by 50 percent ($7.5 billion), says Mr. Finn.
Finn, a member of the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee and the National Assessment Governing Board, is also skeptical of Clinton's ability to forge ahead with tough reforms.
When Clinton tried to impose competency tests on experienced teachers during the 1980s, an essential measure of school quality, he retreated in the face of political opposition. "He quit because people didn't like them. That's one of the criticisms of Clinton - that he tries to please everybody - he tends not to stick to controversial policies," says Finn.
It was Lamar Alexander, the current secretary of education and a leading figure in the Bush administration, who led the second wave of educational reform in 1986 (the first in the early 1980s with Southern states' legislation). Then Tennessee governor and National Governors' Association (NGA) chairman, Mr. Alexander appointed then New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and Clinton to head up a task force that came up with recommendations for a performance-based educational system.
Michael Cohen, director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, says that with his vast network, Clinton is the most qualified presidential candidate to help revamp the country's education system. "He finds people and draws them into his policy circle as advisers. Clinton does this better than any governor I've ever seen."
Mr. Cohen points to Clinton's leadership in the 1989 education summit between the Bush White House and the NGA. Cohen, then active in the NGA, says Bush called the summit but "clearly had no agenda, other than his 1988 campaign literature and the desire for a photo opportunity."
Clinton invited state and local school board members, teachers, principals, and a host of education reformers to assess their needs at an all-day Washington hearing, recounts Cohen. Clinton then worked hard to mobilize the other 49 governors to set national education goals and issue a joint statement with President Bush.
William Schweke, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Corporation for Private Enterprise Development, warns that national policymakers who fail to invest more in training and education are "committing economic suicide." A low-skilled work force traps American youth in poverty, he says.
A consultant for state and local governments, foundations, and chambers of commerce, Mr. Schweke says there's an important distinction between Clinton's economic approach, which stresses education, apprenticeship, technical training and career preparation, and other candidates' business-oriented approaches.
"You can monkey around all you want by offering incentives for businesses, such as an investment tax credit or the creation of enterprise zones, but it still comes down to whether you have the work force you need," he says.
Cohen is more blunt. "There's a stark contrast between George Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush has been nothing but rhetorical. If Bill Clinton had been president, he would explain to Americans that the entire country, not just parents of school-age children, has a stake in improved education."
Finn minimizes the differences between Bush and his Democratic challengers on needed educational reforms. Bush and the education secretary have proposed a national system of exams based on national education standards, a measure endorsed by Clinton. They face stiff opposition from strong lobbyists, he says. What remains to be seen, is just who has the fortitude to carry them through.