You can tell it's back-to-school time. Wal-Mart is advertising jeans, Kmart is advertising notebooks, and George W. Bush is advertising charter schools.
In one of the biggest ad buys this campaign season, the Republican nominee took to the airwaves in 21 states beginning Aug. 21 with commercials touting his education plan. Using footage from the Republican convention, the Bush ads highlight the candidate's promise to "teach all our children to read and renew the promise of America's public schools."
Before the ads even hit the air, the Gore campaign fired back with lengthy press releases that questioned GOP education proposals and highlighted the vice president's own promises. "Bush's ad is designed to cover up the fact that Bush does nearly nothing to improve public schools or help families pay for college," said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. "Al Gore has real plans to improve education from preschool through college."
Such is the hype surrounding one of the most contentious issues of this election. With polls showing education at or near the top of most voters' list of concerns, both candidates are promising an unprecedented educational blitz-supported by unprecedented amounts of federal tax dollars. Mr. Gore has offered $115 billion in new programs and increased spending over 10 years, while Mr. Bush has promised $13 billion in new spending over five. Either plan represents a hefty increase in the $36 billion budget of the Education Department-and an abandonment of President Reagan's dream of closing the department entirely.
In other words, no matter who wins the election in November, the federal government will be throwing more money at the education system-the Republicans would spend more, the Democrats a lot more. As a result, some conservatives are already grumbling that there's no real difference between the two parties: Republicans are charging over the same cliff as the Democrats; they're just taking longer to get there.
A closer look at the education promises of the two candidates, however, reveals bigger differences than just the dollar amounts-and not just over the issue of school choice (page 30) and the role of religion in the schools, though the differences are significant. On choice, Vice President Gore embraces the National Education Association position that vouchers "would drain money away from our public schools," as a Gore spokesman put it last week. By contrast, Gov. Bush supports vouchers to help low-income students escape failing public schools. On the Supreme Court ruling last June that students cannot lead prayers prior to public-school football games, Mr. Gore expressed support for the ruling and Mr. Bush called it "disappointing."
But beyond the debate over dollars, there's the matter of priorities. Reflecting the Democratic belief that it takes a village to raise a child, Mr. Gore promises $22 billion in new spending (as calculated by the National Taxpayers Union) for universal preschool operating under strict federal controls. The Bush plan, by contrast, has no specific mention of any childcare spending. On the other hand, Mr. Bush directs some federal funds to priorities that are anathema to Democrats. Referring to abstinence education, he has promised to "spend at least as much each year on promoting the conscience of our children as we do providing them with contraception." He also has committed to tripling the federal budget for "character education"-currently $8 million a year. Mr. Gore is silent on both fronts.
Philosophical differences also emerge in the candidates' platforms. Despite the large number of dollars earmarked for education, the Bush plan largely remains true to traditional Republican beliefs such as state and local control and individual responsibility. The Gore plan, by contrast, sets almost all educational priorities at the federal level and leaves choices up to "experts" rather than parents.
Teacher training and recruitment provides a good example of the parties' differing philosophies. While everyone acknowledges a shortage of qualified teachers-especially in poor, inner-city schools-Mr. Bush believes that the states are best qualified to solve their own staffing problems. Accordingly, his plan cuts many of the strings attached to federal education dollars, allowing states and school districts to set hiring priorities and implement training programs designed around local needs rather than Washington mandates.
Mr. Gore takes just the opposite approach. He wants the federal government to hire 100,000 new teachers and offer an across-the-board $5,000 pay raise to keep existing teachers in place. He has also proposed a "21st Century National Teaching Corps" designed to attract an additional 75,000 teachers a year to particularly bad schools, primarily by offering college scholarships to education majors who agree to a four-year tour of duty in a failing school.
Even when the candidates seem to agree on the numbers, there are often major differences just below the surface. For instance, both candidates want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building charter schools, which receive public funding but operate without many of the restrictions that hamper traditional public schools. One of those restrictions is teacher certification. Some states want to jettison federal certification requirements for their charter schools, arguing that
mid-career professionals with real-world experience sometimes make better teachers than education graduates with all the bureaucratic paperwork. But Mr. Gore has already promised the teachers unions that he would "require states to guarantee that all teachers are fully certified"-in effect
reestablishing federal controls over charter schools and making them more like their struggling, traditional counterparts.