It may look like politics as usual, as presidential hopefuls run their education programs through the early primaries of the 2000 race. Democrats promise to spend more on schools; Republicans pledge to crack down on meddlesome federal bureaucrats.
There's a language on school reform that's infusing thinking in both parties - the demand to make public schools demonstrate that students are making progress.
Gains in the number of poor and minority third-graders who can read gave Democrats like Bill Clinton and Republicans like Texas Gov. George W. Bush a platform to seek national office. The issue didn't spring from a Washington think tank or polling agency. Rather, it has filtered up into national politics from some 15 years of reform in the states. And it's starting to jog traditional partisan stands on education.
For some Republicans, it's meant muting traditional election-year calls for abolishing the Department of Education and coming up with positive ways Washington can improve schools.
Meanwhile, Democrats find themselves debating the viability of vouchers that provide public funds for children to attend private or parochial schools. They're an increasingly popular conservative strategy for enhancing parental choice, but one that has been taboo for Democrats because they could jeopardize key support from teachers unions.
For decades, Republicans have used opposition to federal control as a template for any education strategy. Education is a local issue, and the less federal involvement, the better, they said.
Besides cutting strings on federal aid, Republicans have long urged axing the US Department of Education, which they view as a payoff to the National Education Association, the No. 1 teachers union, for its early support of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Members of teachers unions still accounted for 1 in 5 delegates at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.)
Yet the GOP front-runner, Governor Bush, not only would preserve the Department of Education, he would assign it more responsibility. He also defines a new federal role in reform: ensuring that public schools use some $8 billion in federal aid to poor children effectively. Schools that receive federal aid should be required to test their students, he says. Failing schools that can't show improvement would forfeit their federal dollars. These funds (about $1,500 per child) would be turned over to parents to spend on tutoring or an alternative public or private school.
Republican rivals Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, John McCain, and Alan Keyes call for curbing Washington's role in schools. But the idea that Republicans need a positive national record in education is gaining ground among GOP lawmakers.
"Interest in education among Republicans in Congress is at an all-time high, whereas at one point they shied away from the issue or only talked about it when they wanted to abolish programs," says Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an adviser to GOP politicians, including Bush.
For Democrats, the accountability challenge showed up in an unprecedented debate over private-school vouchers early on in the campaign. Former US Sen. Bill Bradley defended votes in favor of voucher experiments to test whether the concept was viable. Vice-President Gore attacked vouchers as a drain on public resources. By last week, Senator Bradley was saying they weren't "the answer to the problems of public education."
Gore's own proposal is a record $115 billion in new spending, including bonuses for states and school districts that commit to improving poor schools and testing new teachers.
"Bush sees the need to increase accountability for student achievement. What he's not doing is putting money on the table to help schools do a better job. Gore provides the money, but he isn't demanding accountability for student results. That won't get you very far either," says Amy Wilkins, policy analyst with the Education Trust in Washington.
BILL BRADLEY (D)
"I view education as not just simply K-12. I view it as beginning at birth, extending through every life stage and for everybody. And that means the first three years of life, kids have to have stimulation, early child care, and education."
* $1.3 billion to recruit and train 600,000 new teachers
* $1 billion for after-school programs
* $2 billion for Pre-K early care and education programs
* $2 billion over five years to improve community colleges
AL GORE (D)
"Investments in improving education in a revolutionary way represent the single most important priority for our future."
* $115 billion education plan to fund smaller schools, smaller classes, special education, and universal pre-school
* $5,000 salary increase for teachers in high-poverty urban and rural schools
* Require states receiving federal money to test new teachers for teaching skills and knowledge of subject matter
* Triple the number of public charter schools by 2010
* Veto any voucher proposal
GARY BAUER (R)
"I will defend the rights of parents to guide their children's education, and will work to ensure that every family has a choice of schools."
* Block-grant $38 billion of federal education spending to states and localities
* Give vouchers and tax credits for all forms of schooling, including home schooling
* Present both evolution and creationism in the classroom, and let students decide
* Support voluntary prayer and posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools
GEORGE W. BUSH (R)
"What I am proposing today is a fresh start for the federal role in education. A pact of principle. Freedom in exchange for achievement.... Local control with one national goal: excellence for every child."
* $3 billion in loan guarantees to help fund 2,000 new charter schools
* Give states more freedom to spend federal dollars, but if schools fail after three years, aid reverts to parents
* Aggressively emphasize early-reading skills in Head Start programs
* Support voluntary prayer and posting of Ten Commandments in public schools
STEVE FORBES (R)
'A good education is a civil right and a passport to economic freedom. No mother should be forced to send her child to a bad school."
* More parental control of education through education savings accounts, tuition tax credits, vouchers
* Block-grant funds from the Department of Education and send them to states and localities
* Fast-track teacher certification for retired business leaders and military officials
* Oppose national standards and tests
* Support voluntary prayer in public schools
ALAN KEYES (R)
"It's absolutely critical that we put the control of our educational system back in the hands of our parents.... So let the money follow the choice of parents, not the choice of 'educrats,' bureaucrats, and politicians."
* Abolish the US Department of Education
* Phase out federal spending on education
* Enhance parental choice through vouchers
* Support prayer by educators in public schools and posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms
JOHN MCCAIN (R)
"Let's spend money on kids and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats.... Some people just aren't meant to be teachers and should find another line of work. Because if teachers can't teach, our kids can't learn."
* $5.4 billion national voucher program (over three years)
* $1 billion to raise salaries and standards for teachers
* Oppose national standards and tests
* Support block grants and voluntary prayer in public schools
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society