IN the 1980s, concern over education became acute among voters who felt low student test scores and "a rising tide of mediocrity" in schools could harm the country. Education remains crucial in the 1992 election. The issue is a harbinger of the economic and intellectual health of the United States.
Ten years of reform costing billions of dollars have brought minor progress. Teachers earn more. Test scores stopped dropping. But no broad renewal or restructuring of public schools and school systems has begun. Half the teachers in Chicago send their own kids to private academies. Schools and teachers must be freer to innovate and be more accountable; they aren't yet.
Schools face great social tensions: race, uncertainty over values and behavior, inequities between rich and poor. Some 31 percent of students today are minority; by the year 2000, 35 percent will be. In inner cities, where the worst schools are, 85 percent of students are minority. Given rising ethnic hatred across the globe, all children must learn the value of a diverse and tolerant democracy and the rights and responsibilities that underlie it.
Education starts at home between parent and child; it is continued by parent-teacher involvement in local schools. The federal government can't make parents read to their kids. But enlightened policies by an "education president" can improve schools and set a tone. As education president, George Bush deserves more credit than he often gets. He held the first national governors' conference on education in 1989, leading to national goals. He appointed former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, a top reformer, as secretary of education. His weakness is a lack of follow-through.
As for Bill Clinton, the issue is one of his strongest. Mr. Clinton brokered the 1989 education conference. In Arkansas, he pioneered early-childhood education and high school graduation requirements. Despite GOP rhetoric to the contrary, he was one of two governors ever able to take on the powerful National Education Association (NEA) and push through a competency test for teachers. He headed the Education Commission of the States and the National Governors Association the year it set a reform agenda. H e has a genuine feel for the subject and its politics.
An education president presides over three areas: establishing priorites, making appointments, and civic leadership.
* Priorities. School choice is the candidates' top priority in '92. It reveals basic philosophical differences between the two men.
Offering students a choice of schools can pressure schools to improve and challenge public education's bureaucracy. Choice can foster equity and excellence - but it has downsides as well.
Bush includes private schools in his choice plan through vouchers to parents. Clinton supports choice among public schools only. Bush's reforms derive from an unregulated market ideal: "Let the market decide." Clinton is for a regulated market - reform from within the public system.
Broadly adopted, the Bush plan could undercut an already weak public sector by supporting for-profit and parochial schools. Bush has said little about whether private schools taking vouchers could choose students based on religion, race, past record, or means. A regulated system would prohibit such discrimination. If inner-city schools don't improve, however, limited voucher experiments may be demanded by outraged parents. Clinton could be in the best position to advocate such change with the powerful te acher unions opposed to it. Bush's record with the unions is solely adversarial. Clinton, endorsed by the NEA, has also gone to the mat with it.
Other issues: national standards, inner-city schools, math and science education, and increased funding for Head Start programs.
* Appointments. Bush will rightly stay with Mr. Alexander. Clinton knows the players well choose Theodore Sizer. Other Cabinet positions can reflect an education strategy, as Bush has shown with the retraining program headed by Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin.
* Civic leadership. This requires telling unpopular truths and setting a sober tone - not easy when the presidency is run by pollsters and media handlers. Neither candidate is a Vaclav Havel. But Rhodes scholar Clinton, more articulate and spontaneous, may have an edge over Bush here.