The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
From now until election day, George W. Bush and Al Gore will talk so much about public education that it may seem like they're running for superintendent of schools rather than president of the United States.... ...Richard Lee Colvin, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 27, 2000.
Commentary of the Day - September 15, 2000: The IP Challenges Bush and Gore on Education:

Both George W. Bush and Al Gore spend a great deal of time speaking about public education during campaign events.  As the IP noted in previous commentaries, there are both similarities and differences between the Republican and Democratic Party platform planks on education.  The same is true for the candidates, themselves.  Both Bush and Gore have given more attention to education issues than previous presidential candidates.

This can be traced to several factors.  First, of course, is the widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of public education in recent years.  A variety of test instruments have shown that American kids lag far behind their peers from many other countries in such basic skills as reading and mathematics.  Second, with the fall of communism many of the international issues that normally come to the fore in a presidential election are missing from today's politics.  Third, we are in the midst of relative prosperity, so as the attention of the body politic has refocused on national issues the national mood is predisposed towards using our wealth to solve some of our nagging social problems.  Thus, we see issues such as health care and education high on the candidates' radar screens.

Just as the party platforms exhibit a great deal of overlap on education issues, so do the candidates.  Both Bush and Gore seem to have accepted an expanded role for the federal government in public education.  In past years Bush's Republican predecessors have expressed far more dour views regarding federal involvement in education issues.  Indeed, it wasn't too long ago that some Republicans were calling for the elimination of the federal Department of Education entirely!  Not so from George W.

The major difference between Bush and Gore on federal funding for public education is in the methods that each would use.  In true Republican fashion Bush would rely heavily on block grants that go directly to the states and local school districts to be distributed more or less according to state and local policy.  Gore, on the other hand, seems to favor a more direct level of involvement on the part of the federal government.  Surprisingly, both candidates have steered clear of any philosophical discussions of the "proper" role of the federal government in public education.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the pragmatic, task-oriented outlook of both candidates.

There are, nevertheless, some sharp differences between the candidates on the education issue.  Bush favors vouchers (although he has been downplaying this issue on the campaign trail).  Gore, who draws a good deal of support from teacher unions, is opposed to vouchers, which are an anathema to the unions.  Bush would use vouchers a tool to deal with failing schools.  Under Bush's plan if a failing school does not improve within three years, it would be shut down and the students would have the option to transfer to other public schools or to receive a voucher worth about $1,500 that could be applied to tutoring or private school tuition.  Gore, on the other hand, would require a failing school to improve within three years or face a complete change of staff.

Another big difference between the candidates is the amount of federal funds each would be willing to use to solve education problems.  From reading the positions of the candidates posted on their web sites, it looks like Bush would spend about $5 billion per year on a variety of education programs, while Gore would spend a little more than twice that amount.  Both would spend much of the money in similar areas such as early childhood education, and improved teacher education and training.

Both candidates are strong on the issue of "accountability".  However, neither candidate calls for a national testing program to ensure that our K-12 students meet minimum standards for performance in basic subjects.  Bush, in fact, would increase local control over testing - and Gore calls only for voluntary national testing.  While many folks might disagree, the IP is of the opinion that local control and the lack of national minimum curriculum and performance standards are big parts of the problem.  After all, it was those local school boards who got us into the education mess we now are in.  Most of the industrialized countries whose students perform at much higher levels than our American students have long had relatively  centralized public education systems, with national testing being the norm.

While there certainly are good arguments to be made for public education being primarily a state responsibility, having some national minimum standards seem to necessary to keep those local school boards honest.  If we want to continue to maintain a competitive workforce, students from all parts of the country should meet some minimum standards in the basic skills.  The IP would like to hear what the candidates have to say about this suggestion.

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