BOTH 1992 candidates for the United States presidency rise to the question, "Will the real education candidate please stand up?"
President Bush's first education secretary was one of the leading Hispanic physicians and university presidents in Texas. His replacement was former governor, then University of Tennessee President Lamar Alexander, a successful champion of elementary and secondary school reform and of state-by-state reporting of educational attainments.
The major education accomplishment of the Bush presidency to date was a national summit meeting in 1989 that culminated in a bipartisan consensus among governors and the president on six national goals for education, ranging from "every child shall be ready for school" to US eminence in math and science in the next century. Gov. Bill Clinton was one of the leading Democratic governors supporting the national goals and urging other governors toward consensus at this remarkable state-federal conference at the University of Virginia.
Are the differences between the candidates simply timetable and dollar commitments - or are there more fundamental differences?
Mr. Clinton as a governor committed to reform enraged the educational establishment of Arkansas, especially the organized teachers affiliated with the National Education Association. Clinton found Arkansas leaders reluctant to raise taxes and salaries for all classroom personnel, especially for those thought marginally qualified to teach. So Clinton agreed to require a standardized test for Arkansan public school teachers.
When more than 5 percent of the teachers in school districts failed the test, they were offered a chance to study and take the exam a second time if they wished to remain teachers. Some chose retirement over a second test. A few even failed the test a second time. Arkansas teachers, like those in neighboring Texas, resented the test as humiliating and demeaning. This "weeding out" process, however, made legislators more confident about spending money on poorly funded school houses and underpaid teachers in the Ozarks and rural communities of Arkansas. Although the National Education Association overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton for president, he is hardly its captive.
Mr. Bush as president has actively sought the support of Roman Catholic school patrons and of those families preferring private school options. He has proposed using anti-poverty funds to provide vouchers or scholarships to low-income students whose families might have more confidence in parochial or private schools. He has called for the creation of a $200 million program of experimental schools to "break the mold" and start anew with a system of contemporary approaches to learning, with millions in cor porate start-up money to support educational reform.
Clinton and Bush are closest in their support of early childhood education, especially the Head Start program. Bush has supported Head Start, which now serves 30 percent of all eligible students; he recently offered another $600 million for the program. Clinton favors full-funding, which would require as much as $5 billion in additional appropriations.
Will there be any money? Under the 1990 White House-Congress budget agreement, any new funds for educational programs must come either from a new revenue source or from an existing educational program.
Bush would, in a second term, cut defense spending by about 5 percent a year, while Clinton has proposed somewhat deeper cuts that would approach 8 percent or so a year. A post-1992 federal budget accord will doubtless tear down the wall between defense and domestic expenditures, allowing defense "savings" to be reinvested in education, training, and social services.
The candidates differ on higher education support to individuals. Bush agreed to modest increases in Pell grants, student loans, and an expansion of loans to middle-class parents to finance the education of their children. Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council favor an alternative loan program linked to national service by young people, such as VISTA (the domestic Peace Corps).
THE Democratic alternative would allow public service-minded and low-income borrowers to work off the indebtedness. Clinton has also consistently advocated a trust-fund program giving graduates the choice to pay back college loans by community service or payroll deduction of a percentage of income.
One major difference between the candidates may be the role of the private sector in supporting education. In the early 1970s, the federal education role rose to more than 10 percent of the funds needed to run the nation's public schools. But under Reagan-era cutbacks, that percentage dropped to 6 percent. The primary responsibility for education in the US continues to remain with the states. Over three decades, the states' share of school expenditures has risen from 30-40 percent toward 50 percent, the remainder being local tax or family payments.
Plainly, a Clinton presidency would push for higher federal support for education, certainly in the direction of 10 percent. He would favor bills initiated by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee that stimulate state and local family health and counseling services for infants and school-age children. He would also be for technology reforms, including "distance education" - the telecasting of advanced courses to remote rural and mountainous locales where teachers are scarce.
Bush has called on major corporations to fund demonstration projects that would revitalize American education. Business executives remain relatively confident about the effectiveness of US colleges and universities, but they voice strong concerns about the adequacy of elementary and secondary schools, especially in basic skills ranging from reading, math, and science to geography, civics, and general problem-solving. Corporate America already has raised tens of millions to finance new initiatives to crea te alternatives to the presumably outmoded factory schools popular since 1890.
Both Bush and Clinton favor the creation of tougher standards for assessing educational results, including expanded state and national testing. While Tennessee governor, Lamar Alexander chaired a task force that urged periodic state-by-state comparisons of achievement at various grade levels - a dramatic reversal of prior policies of comparing mainly in key regions. Clinton's reform packages included a heavy component of local achievement testing of students, along with testing of teachers.
Who will Clinton listen to? As a former intern to Senator Fulbright and a Rhodes Scholar, Clinton will listen to university advocates of study abroad and to Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, who would import 200,000 Russians and other Eastern European businessmen who need a summer or semester course in free-market economics.
He will respect Mr. Gore's pleas for environmental education and computer-technology grants. He will listen to Marion Wright Edelman's eloquent pleas for expanded children's services to allow disadvantaged youth to get the health and child care needed to be ready to learn. And he will listen to Michael Kirst, former Chair of the California Board of Education, who has advised a dozen states on how best to stimulate lasting school governance reform.
Bush might listen to Benno Schmidt, former Yale president, who now heads Chris Whittle's program to create 1,000 for-profit elementary and secondary schools. Checker Finn, former education advisor in the Reagan-Bush administration, will make sure that the White House sees the connection between these new private schools and the voucher proposals which should make the new schools feasible for low income families.
What else separates the candidates, or tells how they respond to issues of admissions, financial aid, or equity?
American private colleges, especially those highly selective schools ordinarily favored by the Republican elite, took some of the heaviest jolts in decades when the US Department of Justice investigated alleged collegiate price-fixing, scholarship collusion, and conspiracy in restraints of trade. This first-in-a-century application of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890s) to college education caught Harvard, Yale, MIT, and dozens of selective colleges off guard.
During 1992, the Democratic Congress agreed to new higher-education language authorizing discussions on the determination of student needs, which partially rescued the colleges and Bush from prosecutions initiated by another Ivy League graduate, former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.
The Bush team also came very close to banning scholarships earmarked for minorities, a clear difference from what Clinton advisers would advocate.
Another challenge to higher education came from federal auditors who found incorrect charges made to overhead funds at several major American universities. Universities have recalculated their overhead charges and sent money back to the US government. With reductions in the defense budget, neither presidential candidate will be able to expand the research budget until time has washed over the university overhead scandal of 1991. Clinton had talked about more investment in civilian technological research and development and might finance this through a transfer of funds from defense to R&D to commerce to higher education.
The 1992 election will doubtless be won or lost on how voters judge the prospects for economic recovery. Character, experience, and candidate appeal will also play a role. Little sustained debate will focus on what the next president will do about education. But education is arguably our most important domestic issue and the need for improved strategies and increased investments in our children is clear.
It is equally clear that in Clinton, Bush has not only a fellow Yalie for an opponent, but also a rival with an aggressive set of education proposals as well as a strong record as an education governor.