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.
``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?
Fourth, virtue and character - how schools can impart them.
Few candidates gave any specifics, but educators said that these are the issues that need to be addressed.
During the two-hour debate in the morning, all seven Democrats, beginning with Sen. Paul Simon, supported raising teacher salaries. Rep. Richard Gephardt advocated a merit pay plan for teachers, after fair methods of evaluation have been established. Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt said ``enough is known'' already to enact such a plan. The Rev. Jesse Jackson supports higher salaries, but for teachers ``in our inner-city war zones.''
Gov. Michael Dukakis, citing statistics from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy that show half the nation's teachers will retire within 10 years, favored 80,000 federally funded college scholarships for prospective teachers. Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. also favored a teacher corps.
In the afternoon, Rep. Jack Kemp refuted charges that the fewness of Republican candidates present was a measure of the GOP's interest in the subject. ``Education transcends politics,'' he said. Former Gov. Pierre (Pete) duPont, however, said it was the GOP's failure to articulate a serious domestic policy agenda - including education - that caused ``us to lose the Senate in 1986, and will cause us to lose the presidency, if we don't improve.''
Mr. DuPont unveiled a comprehensive voucher plan that would allow parents to have a choice between public and private schools.
And though experts agreed that duPont's proposal was the most substantive new idea in the debate, Kemp successfully attacked its privatization theme. (Even parochial schools have backed off vouchers because of the federal regulations that would accompany them.)
Neither GOP candidate favored cutting the current federal education budget.
This was in keeping with what most educators saw as the new direction in the debate - a more bipartisan agreement about federal spending. Several analysts felt it was summed up best in a Sunday Washington Post editorial:
``The Republicans should give up, as [Secretary of Education] Bennett seems to have, the notion that you can improve education without spending any more money. Some improvements may be cheap or even free. But ultimately you are going to have to spend. The Democrats should get off the clich'ed excoriation of [President] Reagan for spending money on defense systems that should be spent on education: None of them is going to zero out the defense budget, and the case for education stands on its own.''
No political debate would be complete without a few hot exchanges. In Chapel Hill it was Sen. Albert Gore Jr. saying that, if elected, one of his first acts would be to ``tell William Bennett to clean out his desk.'' Mr. Bennett would be replaced with ``a working teacher.''
Bennett, who was in the audience, told reporters afterward, ``I'm puzzled. Mr. Gore started by talking about accountability, then discussed the need for traditional values and discipline, then finished by saying we need to get drugs out of schools. He takes all my ideas - then fires me!''