Education is on the radar screen of both presidential front-runners these days. With a March Pew Center poll showing the two candidates running neck and neck on this traditionally Democratic issue, we are probably embarking on the first presidential election in which the education issue is front and center. It's an odd topic for a national election, though, since the federal government has so little to do with it, providing barely seven cents of the public school dollar.
This never deterred Bill Clinton. Part of his genius was dragging everyday education issues into the Oval Office. Not that he actually did much about them; not that anybody in Washington could. But by proposing a new federal program in response to every imaginable school-related problem, he managed to depict himself as America's uber-superintendent of schools.
Gore couldn't escape that 8-year legacy if he wanted to, but there's no sign that he's uncomfortable with it. His school visits and teacher talks are what one would do if running for local school board or, perhaps, governor. Yet he's never done anything of that sort. Gore is, in fact, a latecomer to education reform. In 16 years in Congress, he introduced just four education bills.
Gore's education platform is a mish-mash of programs. One would create new savings and tax incentives to make college more affordable. Another focuses on "discipline, character, values, safety, and parental involvement." Yet another claims to improve teaching by testing new teachers. (He'd never dream of testing veteran teachers. Their unions would balk.)
And, of course, he keeps pushing for smaller classrooms and more teachers. Like Clinton, he appears to be trotting out focus-group-tested nostrums that resonate with voters even if they are absurd undertakings by the federal government. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, says Gore's plans may look impressive but are nothing more than "a Washington-style laundry list of 30 different education proposals."
Bush's plans are considerably more focused, grounded in his belief that "the federal government must be humble enough to stay out of the day-to-day operation of local schools, [but] strong enough to require proven performance in return." As governor of a state that has received plaudits for its ambitious academic standards, no-nonsense testing and stern accountability system, as well as its success in narrowing the racial achievement gap, Bush has a sturdy education record on which to stand.
As president, Bush would offer greater flexibility for states and districts in exchange for stronger academic results. His main goal is to rework the federal programs aimed at helping poor students. To this end, he would redirect the Head Start program from child development to early literacy. He would offer states additional resources to teach reading in early grades. His plan for the big Title I "compensatory education" program would target dollars at the primary grades where achievement gaps typically emerge. States and schools that make real progress in narrowing those gaps will receive financial rewards. If a school fails to meet stated goals for three consecutive years, its students could take their federal dollars to the school of their choice.
Predictably, school choice is where we find the biggest difference between the two candidates. Though no voucher zealot, Bush would inject choice into federal programs. He also would likely appoint sympathetic judges. Gore sometimes murmurs about public school choice and charter schools, but he won't alarm the teacher unions, which means he'll oppose serious efforts to use the marketplace as an important reform tool.
Federal education policy ought to focus on problems that Washington can do something about, not on creating a new program to match every issue that polls well. It's clear from the experience of successful schools that freedom from red tape can do more to boost learning than just pouring in more money. We don't kid ourselves. Not many voters pick their president for his education platform. Yet presidents do make a difference, both as head of the executive branch and as holder of the nation's loudest microphone. Their views on education help set the agenda. What they think and what they promise needs to be taken seriously.