THE 45 million American schoolchildren heading back to class this fall can't vote on how their schools should be improved. But their parents can.
The only problem is that many voters can't distinguish between the education policies of George Bush and those of Bill Clinton.
The 1992 election pits the self-proclaimed "education president" against the education-minded governor of Arkansas.
Mr. Clinton is widely hailed for the educational progress Arkansas has made under his governorship.
Mr. Bush made a strong showing on education at the beginning of his presidency. He called the governors together in 1989 for an Education Summit, where first-ever national goals were outlined. Since then, however, he has given the issue little attention.
The two candidates share many of the same views on education. Each favors expanding the Head Start program for preschoolers. Both support national testing and national standards as well as regular report cards on state education systems. They agree on the need to improve teacher training and to make teacher certification more flexible.
"If you made a list of which policies each one is in favor of, you wouldn't find that many differences," says Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration.
The candidates even agree that parents should have more say in which schools their children attend. But the defining difference between Bush and Clinton is how far they are willing to extend this issue of school choice.
"The big question is not really choice, but whether federal dollars should be used to underwrite private education," says Edward Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. "Bush has said `Yes,' and Clinton has said `No.' That's where the controversy is."
This summer Bush proposed a "GI bill for children" that would provide $1,000 vouchers for low-income families to use at the school of their choice: public, private, or religious.
"It's `read my lips' all over again," says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers' union that has endorsed Clinton.
"When he ran for office four years ago, Bush said he was against money for private schools. And then he got pressured by the private interests, and he capitulated on that," Mr. Shanker says.
"There's absolutely no doubt that over four years Bush has changed on this issue," Mr. Finn says. "The continuing decrepitude of American education between 1989 when Bush was inaugurated and the present - and the mounting evidence that the reforms of the '80s have not worked - has radicalized me. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's had a similar effect on Bush."
On the other hand, Clinton is increasingly being criticized for being too close to the teachers' unions and the education establishment. He spoke at both teachers'-union conventions this summer and has garnered endorsements from both groups.
"He's not in our pocket, and we're not in his," Shanker says. "But on basic things as to who can set the country right again, we're in accord."
Although Clinton did butt heads with the Arkansas teachers' union over such issues as teacher testing, he is sounding much more conciliatory these days.
If elected, "Clinton is going to have real troubles - like Jimmy Carter did - in spurning the policy preferences of the groups that did so much to get him elected," Finn says.
Voters shouldn't be fooled, however, by the appearance of agreement between the two candidates, education experts say.
Beneath their similar programmatic ideas lies a difference in basic views. Once you discount the choice issue, the differences come down to Clinton's emphasis on investing more federal dollars and Bush's focus on restructuring schools, Mr. Kealy says.
Clinton's economic plan includes an additional $10 billion for federal education and training programs in 1993. "Clinton has made it clear that he believes federal investment in education should be a priority. Bush is looking more at improving outcomes and paying attention to how to make changes that im-prove the effectiveness of schools but don't necessarily require additional dollars," Kealy says.
During his presidency, Bush has not advocated any substantial increases in the federal contribution to education. "Congress has usually been the one to push him to go beyond what his budgets have required," Kealy says.
For Clinton, the lingering question if he gets in the White House will be whether he can deliver on the expectation he is generating for strong federal investment in education.