School-Choice Issue Fails To Reach Voters

ALTHOUGH the federal government has little control over kindergarten-through-12th-grade education policy, school choice has been the most hotly debated education issue in the presidential campaign.

William Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund, considers the campaign debate about school choice to be misplaced.

"People really don't focus on the education-choice issue because it's not being carried out in the local debating halls where the real power to change the public schools lies," Mr. Gray says.

"Until it becomes a raging debate at the state and city levels, it's not a highly focused issue at the national level," he says. "But it's the only place where you see some real significant differences between Bush and Clinton."

Incumbent President George Bush favors a voucher program that would allow parents to send their children to any school - public, private, or religious.

Democratic challenger Bill Clinton favors public-school choice but opposes any plan allowing tax dollars to go to private schools.

The issue has defined the candidates' education platforms. "If you're out on the campaign trail, you don't hear them talking much about their views on higher education or Head Start," Gray says.

That's because Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton share many of the same views on these issues, he explains.

They both support increased investment in the Head Start program for preschoolers and an expansion of the Pell Grant program for low-income college students. Clinton favors higher investments in each of these programs, however.

"Where there's a real difference between the two candidates in education, it appears that the difference is the mechanism for improving K-12," Gray says. "That difference is most clearly revealed in the issue of school choice."

But many voters don't understand this debate. A survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that a third of the African-American voters surveyed were not aware of Bush's voucher proposal, which he calls the "GI Bill for Kids."

"Just like the Democrats on choice vis-a-vis the issue of abortion, the Republicans now talk about choice in education," Gray says.

"Whenever you get two issues that end up having the same code word, there's going to be inevitable confusion," he says.

"When the administration talks about choice, I've sometimes seen people think they are talking about abortion. It doesn't resonate."

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