Battle to Be Education Champ

As election day nears, Republicans make headway in convincing voters of the merits of their classroom agenda.

Republicans have changed the way they talk about education - and, on the eve of crucial midterm elections, voters have listened.

No longer are Republicans talking about shutting down the US Department of Education or bashing the teachers unions. Instead, the message is better teachers, local control, and smaller class size.

Polling results have been dramatic. Two years ago, Republicans trailed Democrats by 30 points among voters who were asked which party could be trusted to handle education. That gap is now down to about 10 points, according to a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters.

In an election where education is the No. 1 issue, these results signal an important victory for the GOP as it tries to expand its grip on Congress and build on its already-substantial lead in governorships. (Related story, Page 3.)

"We finally got our candidates not talking about 'Let's close the Department of Education' as the first thing out of their mouths," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. "The message that sends to voters is, 'I don't care about education,' and they didn't hear anything after that."

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who sometimes conducts surveys with Mr. Goeas, notes that education remains a powerful issue for her party - especially for the women voters whom Democrats are eager to keep in their camp.

But Ms. Lake calls the Republicans "brilliant" in their handling of President Clinton's initiative to put money in the budget for 100,000 new teachers. Instead of fighting the plan as an attempt to federalize education - anathema to GOP ideology - the Republicans went along with it and made sure the program was under local control. Now, GOP congressional candidates across the country are touting the 100,000 new teachers as a signal achievement of the 105th Congress.

In a way, the prominence of the education issue is a sign of the luxurious times in which America is living - a time when Americans feel unusually good about the direction the country is going in, when concerns over the world economy haven't quite broken to the surface, and the nation is at peace.

Classrooms and hordes of smiling schoolchildren provide a ready tableau for campaign ads for candidates at all levels of government. At times, it looks as if Campaign '98 is one giant school-board race.

In Texas, the mantra of Gov. George W. Bush (R) - a possible presidential hopeful - is that "no goal is more important than making sure all Texas schoolchildren are able to read."

In California, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) went on the air with the first television ads of her reelection bid, the message was tough new graduation standards for high-schoolers and after-school programs to keep kids out of trouble.

FOR her Republican opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, the solution is greater parental choice of schools and a voucher program to allow the lowest performing children to attend the schools of their choice, either public or private.

Gary Huggins, a school-choice advocate, says the sea change in Republicans' fortunes isn't just a better message - it's that the public has become more receptive to the reform ideas that Republicans have long championed.

"Everybody's for charter schools now, but initially they suffered from the same charges that vouchers do now - that they will siphon money from the public system, or that they will be havens for the elite child," says Mr. Huggins, executive director of the nonprofit Education Leaders Council.

The teachers unions, stung by the harsh criticism leveled at them by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996, have also jumped on the school-reform bandwagon. And in this election cycle, the National Education Association (NEA) political-action committee is backing 18 Republican candidates, compared with only one in 1996.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's chief lobbyist, says that's simply because there are more pro-education Republicans now than in the past. The NEAPAC bases its recommendations on how members vote in Congress.

Some education analysts agree that Republicans have become less confrontational with Democrats over what to do about the nation's education crisis - but to the detriment of true reform.

Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, argues that in going along with the 100,000 new teachers, and other education policies, "the Republicans are bungling the issue by becoming Clintonites."

Mr. Finn opposes the 100,000 new teachers strategy because there aren't enough qualified people available for the jobs.

"Clinton is an exquisite reader of polls and focus groups, and he figured out that people have an instinctive belief that more teachers and smaller classes mean better education," says Mr. Finn. "Ninety-five percent of the evidence ... suggests that people are just wrong about this."

Finn and other conservative education experts fault the Republicans for not fighting harder for their own ideas - such as the plan to allow tax-free educational savings accounts for parents to use for school expenses.

They call it the "school-lunch syndrome." A few years back, when Republicans were tagged as favoring cuts in the federal school-lunch program, their image took a big hit.

Now, observers say, many Republican lawmakers are squeamish about voting against a popular measure with the word "school" attached to it.

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