Bush, Gore Harp on Differences, but on Education, It's a Different Story

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Like the song says, fish got to swim, birds got to fly . . . presidential candidates got to bicker.

Arguments are the oxygen of presidential politics, the way the contenders clarify the choices for voters and keep press and public interest burning through the long campaign. But, even so, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore looked silly last week as they tried to manufacture a fight over Bush's eminently sensible proposal for a $1-billion-a-year federal grant program to improve the reading performance of poor children.

First Gore accused Bush of copying an early reading initiative the administration first proposed in 1996. Then Bush's camp suggested the administration plan was actually pilfered from a Texas reading program Bush implemented at the same time. It reached the point where Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, truly the most mild-mannered of politicians, issued a statement chiding Bush for twisting Riley's earlier praise of the Texas plan into support for his paternity claim to the importance of early literacy.

Here's an alternative, radical explanation for the convergence: Neither Bush nor Clinton and Gore copied each other at any point. Independently, each was responding to the same current of reform that's now shaping the education agenda of most local officials in both parties. As they move in that current, Bush and the Clinton-Gore administration have developed common assumptions about education reform that extend well beyond the imperative of early-grade reading. Those common assumptions present the opportunity for compromise if the two parties are willing to pursue it--under either this president or the next.

That's not to suggest there aren't big differences between the two sides, especially over Washington's role. Gore and Clinton envision a much more activist federal government that would spend as much as $200 billion over the next decade to help states build schools, reduce class sizes, expand preschool programs and hire more teachers. Bush maintains the key to reform is to shift more power and money to local governments and parents--while holding schools strictly accountable for student performance.

Yet, through such means as requiring annual local testing of students in reading and math, Bush also believes Washington should aggressively encourage local school reform. And to a striking degree, both candidates--like most governors--agree on what those reforms should look like. Increasingly, both parties want to give teachers and principals more authority and flexibility at the schoolhouse level, while subjecting them to rigorous measurements of student performance and pressuring them to improve through increased competition.

"Some big ideological issues are still out there . . . that separate Democrats from Republicans," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a centrist education reform group. "But there is a growing sensible center on some of these issues."

That's evident, for starters, in the shared emphasis of Bush and Clinton/Gore on improving the measurement of student performance. In 1994, Clinton signed into law reforms that require states to regularly test students receiving aid under Title I, the massive federal program for low-income students, with the same exams they use for all students. Now Bush has usefully proposed to sharpen that requirement to annual testing in reading and math.

Like most Republicans, Bush rejects as overly intrusive the principal mechanism Clinton and Gore have proposed to strengthen measurement of all other students: voluntary national tests in reading and math that could function as a yardstick for state exams. But Bush wants Washington to require that states themselves test every student in reading and math, every year from third grade to eighth grade, with federal funds tied to performance. That's arguably an even more coercive federal role than Clinton proposed.

Bush and Clinton/Gore converge again in believing the results of those measurements should be used to impose more competitive pressure on schools. First they want to give parents report cards on their schools with such data as test scores, safety records and graduation rates. Then they want to give parents more options to move their children from schools that don't measure up.

Bush would give parents in failing schools vouchers that they could use to help pay private school tuition. That sharply distinguishes him from Gore, but it is best understood as a dispute over the proper means to increase market pressure on schools--not whether such pressure should be applied. Both Bush and Gore want to make it easier for parents in failing schools to shift their children to other public schools. Even more important, both men staunchly support charter schools: innovative schools that operate within the public school system but free from most rules and regulations. Under Clinton, Washington has contributed start-up funding to more than two-thirds of the roughly 1,700 existing charter schools; Bush wants to create a $3-billion federal fund to help launch thousands more.

None of this, again, should obscure the real differences between the two sides. Bush's call for an across-the-board income tax cut offers voters a clear contrast in priorities with Gore's push for substantially more spending on education (as well as other needs). Likewise, the rivals differ over not only vouchers but also the federal role on questions like improving teacher quality. Yet those disputes don't preclude the possibility of agreement in the areas where the two men's assumptions converge.

If Washington ever revives its instinct for compromise, it's possible to imagine Democrats and Republicans usefully amalgamating key elements of the Bush and the Clinton-Gore approaches. Centrist Senate Democrats led by Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana have already introduced legislation that creatively blends Democratic calls for more federal education funding, Republican demands for more local flexibility and the bipartisan interest in encouraging more rigorous standards and measurement.

No one is betting on agreement this year. Still, the debate between Bush and Gore will inexorably highlight not only the contrasts but the common principles in the two parties' thinking on education. And that could make it harder for the next president and the next Congress to justify another year of stalemate over the schools.

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