EDUCATION may turn out to be the sleeper issue in this year's presidential election. Although schools are usually a secondary subject for candidates, recent polls put education at the top of the public's list of national priorities.
"The candidates have caught on to the fact that the public sees this as a No. 1 issue for the country," says Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group in Washington.
In this election cycle, education may also be an issue that highlights stark differences between how Democrats and Republicans view government.
There is a clearer partisan division on education issues than America has seen in 30 years, says Chester Finn, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "The parties have more sharply different views, particularly with respect to the federal role," he says.
President Clinton's early campaign strategy is leaning heavily on his position as a defender of federal education programs. Throughout the budget impasse, Clinton has stood up against what he considers excessive cuts in education.
"He's made it a key negotiating standard that any deal has to provide for education investment," Mr. Kealy says. "And he made it a keynote in his State of the Union address, where he suggested several new education initiatives."
On the Republican side, the candidates are promising to shift more control of public schools from Washington to parents and communities. Local control of funding will be more efficient and more effective, their reasoning goes.
All the GOP candidates support elimination of the federal Department of Education and propose block grants for the states to take over distribution of federal education funds.
Public wants it both ways
Both the Democratic and Republican positions have a certain amount of appeal to voters, says Mr. Finn. "Spending as an issue is one where the public agrees with Clinton, i.e., we shouldn't be cheap about education. In terms of who should make decisions - federal bureaucrats or your local school board and mom and dad - there's no doubt that the Republican position resonates," he says.
But Clinton may be more interested in talking about education than his GOP opponent would be. "You're going to see the dynamic of Clinton saying that he and his administration are pro-children and the Republicans are not and want to cut children off," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "It's going to be a challenge for the Republicans to face off on that."
In fact, a mid-January Gallup Poll showed Democrats with an edge on the education issue. Clinton's biggest advantage over Republican front-runner Sen. Bob Dole was in the area of education, where Clinton had a lead of 19 percentage points.
Other polls indicate that voters are more concerned about education in this election than ever before. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that for the first time education ranked No. 1 as a priority with voters; 67 percent cited it as a major concern. An Associated Press poll in December reported the economy at the top of the list, with 26 percent citing it as the most important issue; education came in second, with 18 percent.
Times are a changing
Clinton made education an important part of his '92 campaign as well. But things have changed in the country since 1992, and Clinton is shifting his strategy to accommodate those changes.
"The difference from the past is that the federal government just doesn't have much money," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on National Education Policy in Washington. "Even a liberal Democrat can't hold out dreams of spending billions. So Clinton is not talking about spending vast new amounts on the schools. Instead, he's talking about just continuing spending and maintaining what the federal government is doing in education."
At the same time, he is promoting some ideas that are typically associated with the right rather than the left. In his State of the Union address, for example, the president supported the idea of uniforms in schools to help combat gang conflict. He espoused support for character education and independent charter schools within the public-school system.
"He's presenting a platform that can't be typecast ideologically as right or left," Mr. Jennings says. "It's more of a combination of both."
Meanwhile, the Republican candidates, including the historically more conservative Dole, are being pulled to the right, Jennings says. All the candidates support some version of government vouchers to pay for private schooling and encourage private companies to get involved in running public schools.
"Traditionally, education has not served the role of causing people to walk in and pull the lever for a particular candidate," says Mark Weston of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
Education positions might sway up to 2 percent of voters, Mr. Weston estimates. "But the next election is going to be about the role of government," he says, "and education certainly plays a part in that."
"When you talk about education, you galvanize people," Ms. Allen says. "So it's a smart political move to make education a centerpiece of a campaign."