What can candidates do, really, on education?

Bush and gore stake their positions, but educators wonder if Washington really can solve states' problems.

Beneath the Pennsylvania statehouse's grand marble dome, teacher Jane Burrows and her elementary school class inadvertently stumbled into history and an issue at the heart of the 2000 presidential race - the future of education.

Moments after Gov. Tom Ridge signed the most extensive statewide education reform act in almost 60 years, the awed fourth-graders on their annual class trip found themselves clasping the governor's hand as cameras clicked and well-wishers beamed.

But while their teacher was delighted with the serendipitous timing, she chose to withhold judgment on the merits of the proposal. "I'm still forming an opinion," Ms. Burrows said, smiling.

The snapshot embodies both the promise and perils of education reform as it moves into the political limelight.

Frustration with local government's failure to improve overall education has propelled the issue to center stage in the 2000 presidential campaign, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore both vying for the mantle of the true education reformer. But there is clear skepticism among educators and local officials as to how successful either candidate's plan might be.

"I always wonder how those on the federal level think they can fix the things that states have been struggling with for years," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States.

For one thing, education is seen by many as an inherently local issue. Some communities balk when the states get involved - making intervention on a federal level an even bigger challenge.

At the same time, many states are already way ahead of either candidate's proposal. In fact, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have drawn their national education agendas directly from reform efforts already under way in states like Pennsylvania and Texas.

Comparing candidates

Both call for increased accountability, raising standards, and improving teacher qualifications. But they differ dramatically in how they'll achieve those goals.

Gore wants to spend an additional $115 billion over 10 years to jumpstart the education reform movement nationally, while Bush would inject $13 billion over five years, targeting mainly failing schools. Gore is in favor of giving parents in failing school systems the choice to switch to other public schools. Bush favors vouchers which would allow parents to opt out of public education altogether.

Either candidate's proposal would result in far more federal intervention than currently exists. That's left some critics wondering if the same concern over local control - which has so far stymied much of the Clinton education agenda, as well as previous national reform efforts, such as the Bush administration's Goals 2000 - will ultimately stall the momentum of the current presidential wannabes.

But that hasn't stopped either candidate from touting education as his top national priority.

"If I'm entrusted with the presidency, I will ensure that there is a fully qualified, well-trained teacher in every single classroom, everywhere in this nation, by the end of the next four years," Gore says.

At the same time, he accuses Bush of being a "pretender" whose "private-school vouchers" and "bite-sized investment" are "simply way out of touch with the challenges facing our schools."

For his part, the Texas governor contends he's the only one who's got first-hand experience meeting those challenges. He trumpets the success of his state's experiment with school reform, which created a "culture of achievement" he'd like to replicate in every school in the country.

"My plan lifts the burden of bureaucracy, and gives states unprecedented freedom in spending federal education dollars," he says. "In return for this flexibility, each state must adopt a system of real accountability and high standards."

Both candidates would require testing to ensure that "accountability." Gore is calling for a national test, which would set uniform standards. Bush would let the states create their own exams. If students appear to make progress on local tests that is not confirmed by national tests (as some critics have claimed is a problem in Texas) Bush would require the states to rewrite their local tests.

Pennsylvania's plan

Ironically, Pennsylvania's reform proposal started out looking more like Bush's - with a call for school vouchers, as well as increased accountability and a limited investment in failing schools. But Governor Ridge, an often-mentioned GOP vice-presidential contender, had to give up his proposal for vouchers in order to win legislative approval.

The result is a hybrid of the Gore and Bush plans. Critics contend that while the Pennsylvania proposal does give schools the power and flexibility to make many changes, it doesn't provide the needed investment to implement them.

"It really doesn't substantially address the problem of inequality in the way we deliver education in the state," says State Rep. James Roebuck (D) of Philadelphia. "It doesn't give the kind of substantial dollars that are needed in a city like Philadelphia."

Ridge, like Bush, contends that money is not the primary tool needed to improve failing schools. "Clearly in these [failing] school districts, more money hasn't been the answer," he says. "It's pretty clear to all of us ... there has to be some new ideas, different kinds of management."

No one in either camp argues with that. But Gore and the Pennsylvania Democrats contend that any bureaucratic reform proposal is doomed to failure unless it's matched with an equal investment in dollars.

For her part, teacher Jane Burrows worries about the steady stream of cuts she faces each year in her classroom. But she's taking a wait-and-see attitude on the changes. Her chief concern at the moment is next year's statehouse tour.

"When we come it will be anticlimactic," she said, snapping a picture of one of her students as she stood beaming with the governor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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