For those who toil anonymously in America's classrooms or in the administrative offices of the nation's schools and universities, supporting and improving education are clear priorities.
And, as the 2000 presidential campaign enters the home stretch, it's clear that the two major candidates also have embraced those priorities. Improving education is an integral plank in the platforms of both Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee. Several pundits have suggested that, at times, the two seem to be running for national school superintendent.
Although each candidate envisions a different path to better schools, both Bush and Gore are proposing policy changes that would give the federal government a more influential voice in how states and districts run public schools.
Gore's proposals, continuing the Clinton administration's advocacy of modernized schools and smaller class sizes, would have a more direct impact on school facilities.
"We have to give teachers the smaller classes, modern school buildings, good working conditions and the real role in decisionmaking they need to succeed in the classroom," says the vice president.
Bush's education plans would make states and local districts more accountable for student performance and would streamline federal programs to give states and districts more flexibility in how they spent federal dollars.
"Now we have a system of excessive regulation and high standards," says Bush. "In my administration, we will have minimal regulation and high standards."
ON THE FRONT BURNER Like a former wallflower that is suddenly the most popular debutante at the ball, education has caught the eye of the movers and shakers in the 2000 campaign. Previous presidential candidates have made pushes to improve education, but the issue was inevitably overshadowed by seemingly more pressing matters - boosting the economy or maintaining defense spending to fight the Cold War.
And the opinion traditionally voiced by many politicians and educators was that education was a local concern that did not need more involvement - and regulations - from the federal government.
But the 2000 presidential campaign is unfolding on a different landscape. There is little talk of abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, which had been a rallying cry among conservatives in previous campaigns.
A prosperous economy and the end of the Cold War have diminished the urgency of defense spending and tax reforms as issues. While those issues were fading to the background, a drumbeat of voices - from beyond the schoolhouse walls or college campuses - has been demanding substantial improvements in U.S. schools.
Those impatient with inconsistent state efforts to raise standards and improve student performance are more likely to turn to the federal government to spur improvements. And even though federal money makes up only a sliver of the education funding pie (see sidebar, page 18), the projected budget surpluses mean the federal government has cash in its pocket that could be allocated for education.
TRACK RECORDS For both Bush and Gore, their embrace of education is not a newfound flirtation to appeal to voters. Bush has made education reform a cornerstone of his administration as Texas governor, and Gore has been considered the Clinton administration's leading proponent of beefing up technology in America's schools.
When Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994, he made education reform a priority. He streamlined state education goals, made schools more accountable for student success, increased funding for schools - including money to help districts building more schools - and ended social promotion.
"Education has been and will be a priority for me," says Bush. "I will carry a passion for high standards and high hope to the highest office in the land."
Gore, besides being the front man for the initiative to wire every classroom to the Internet through programs such as the E-rate, has been a vocal supporter of the Clinton administration's efforts to provide federal funding to help districts reduce class sizes and build more schools.
"We cannot adequately prepare our children for the 21 superscript st century in schools that are overcrowded, falling apart or lacking quality teachers," says Gore.
THE PLATFORMS With his goal of carrying on President Clinton's push for modernizing schools and reducing class size, Gore is pursuing proposals that would involve the federal government more directly in facility-related issues.
Bush, who believes too much federal involvement would usurp control from states and local districts, would commit less federal money to education. His proposals would loosen federal regulations to give local school authorities more leeway in how they spend their federal funds.
GORE The vice president wants to use part of the projected federal budget surplus to create a $115 billion Education Reform Trust Fund. Among the projects the fund would support over 10 years:
- Tax credits and other incentives to help states and local school districts build and renovate more than 6,000 public schools.
- A program to help districts hire 100,000 qualified teachers by 2005 and reduce class sizes in early grades.
- Completing the connection of every classroom and library to the Internet, providing training so teachers can use the Internet effectively, and undertaking an initiative to have every child achieve computer literacy by eighth grade.
- Tripling the number of charter schools - from about 1,700 to more than 5,000 - by 2005.
- Universal access to high-quality preschools. Gore's plan would make new matching funds and incentive grants available to states that guarantee access for all 4-year-olds.
Gore also would establish an accountability system that would close down a failing school that has not made significant improvement after two years. The school would be reopened with a new principal and teachers, or it could be reopened as a charter school.
"I believe that investment without accountability is a waste of money," says Gore. "And accountability without investment is doomed to failure."
Other education proposals in the Democrat's platform include providing salary increases to teachers who work in schools in high-poverty areas and mandating that states must strengthen licensing for teachers.
BUSH The Republican candidate's proposals generally have less money attached to them than his opponent's. Bush's education platform emphasizes greater accountability for teachers, school districts and states. He believes a system should be in place for determining the effectiveness of education strategies before the federal government allocates more money to reform initiatives.
Bush would streamline federal funding authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Instead of 60 separate programs, funding would fall into five general categories. States would have greater control over how funds were spent.
In return for the greater flexibility, states would have to establish an accountability system "involving high standards and regular performance measurement." Specifically, Bush calls for annual assessment of all students from third to eighth grade in reading and math. Schools that don't measure up could lose federal funding.
Like his opponent, Bush also backs the growth of charter schools. He would create a Charter School Homestead Fund, which would support $3 billion in loan guarantees to help establish or enhance 2,000 charter schools - including acquisition, lease or renovation of a facility.
"Competition is required to jolt a bureaucracy out of its lethargy," says Bush. "So my second goal for the federal role of education is to increase the options and influence of parents."
Bush also supports a voucher system that would provide funds for students from some non-performing schools to transfer to private schools (see sidebar, "Voucher pros and cons," page 16).
Regarding technology, the Texas governor has proposed spending $400 million over five years to ensure that schools are using computers and the Internet in ways that actually improve student achievement.
Other educational programs that Bush is pushing for are tax breaks to compensate teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies; increased funding for a program that recruits retired military personnel as teachers; financial incentives for college graduates who majored in science or math to teach in needy areas; and changing the Head Start program to put greater emphasis on teaching reading.
SCHOOL SAFETY The spate of tragic school violence in the late 1990s has made safety a prime concern for educators and parents. Both candidates have proposed ways to stem the incidents of violence in schools.
"No parent in America - no matter their income - should be forced to send their child to a school where violence reigns," says Bush. "No child in America - regardless of background - should be forced to risk their lives in order to learn."
Bush wants school districts that receive money from the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools Program to demonstrate they are using the funds effectively. School systems would have to establish safety standards and report on safety levels on a school-by-school basis.
The Republican also proposes that students who attend "persistently dangerous" schools be permitted to transfer to a safe public or charter school in the same or a nearby district. In the absence of such a safe school, the district would have to use its federal funding to support the student's transfer to a private school. Bush also supports a greater emphasis on character education and discipline in schools.
Gore advocates a several-pronged approach to prevent school violence: making it more difficult for youths to acquire guns; using V-chips and other blocking devices to stop children from looking at violent content on television and the Internet; and offering more counseling and character education in schools.
The clearest difference between the education proposals of Al Gore and George W. Bush is their stance on vouchers. Each candidate's position follows the tendencies of their parties - Republican Bush favors vouchers, and Democrat Gore opposes them.
Bush believes that vouchers would give parents more options and force schools to be more competitive. A voucher would provide money to allow a student to transfer to a private school from an inadequate public school. Gore believes that vouchers would siphon needed money away from public schools and cause a further decline in educational quality.
Bush's voucher plan proposes that if a school that receives Title I funds is not meeting standards, the federal government can take away the funds and make them available to families of disadvantaged students.
"This money can then be used by students for tutoring, for a charter school, for a working public school in a different district, for a private school - for whatever parents choose," says Bush.
Gore advocates giving parents choice in the public schools through creation of more charter schools, but believes vouchers for private schools would undermine public schools.
"We will never improve education or increase accountability by taking taxpayer money away from public schools - and giving it to private schools that are not accountable," says Gore.