Whose Education Agenda?

Poll-driven politics, like poll-driven journalism, has put education up there as a "national issue" along with youth crime and Social Security.

Yet the quality of public schools has long been a local matter, thank you very much, with very few good ideas and relatively little money coming from Washington.

But that hasn't stopped the two presidential contenders from playing a one-upmanship game of devising federal "solutions" to local concerns about local schools. It's follow-the-Gallup time as the Gore and Bush campaigns pander to the ever-shifting political center.

This gladiatorlike contest over education, unfortunately, is the most interesting part of the presidential campaign - assuming Americans want a federal hand on their neighborhood schools. The two sides really are stretching their imaginations to gain an extra inch with school-worried voters offering new ideas or more funding to help little Amanda and Zachary learn their A-to-Zs and meet some sort of national education standard.

The latest cross-campaign thrust over education came yesterday from poll-meister and Gore-booster President Clinton. On a "school reform tour" across the nation, he signed an executive order that directs federal education officials to publish data on low-performance schools and to increase monitoring of efforts to improve such schools.

If you haven't been following this debate much, this new presidential dictate (which has dubious legal authority) might seem like a why-didn't-we-do-this-sooner idea.

But it's best viewed in its political context, and not as a viable solution.

George W. Bush has scored some points recently against Al Gore with proposals that would make public schools more "accountable" (the current buzzword) for using federal money to teach children to read. He has even suggested that parents of disadvantaged children in failing public schools could receive $1,500 a year to use, if they so choose, as a voucher for private education.

Feeling vulnerable on this "accountability" point, Mr. Gore, and now Mr. Clinton in his executive order, have struck back with ways to punish local schools that "fail." As Democrats, though, they haven't supported vouchers, which presumably would hurt many low-income students by gutting their public schools.

Echoes of this debate are playing out in Congress as Democrats and Republicans position themselves to score points in their own campaigns. They remain far apart about renewing the 1965 Great Society-era funding program known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which puts about $14 billion a year into dozens of programs.

A national debate that caters to community and parental concerns about public schools may bring out new ideas. But let's not let national politics run the education agenda, nor further reduce local control with the lure of cash from a federal surplus - which comes with strings attached.

As many communities and states are now demonstrating, efforts to create better schools start locally. Education reform should bubble up, not trickle down.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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