JOHNSTON, Iowa — Meeting in their 11th debate, the six Democratic candidates for President gathered Thursday to talk about education but spent much of the time jabbing at each other on other issues.
The debate, sponsored by several Iowa teacher and school administration groups, was the second candidate forum on education, and some of the contenders afterwards complained that too many interest groups are taking advantage of the election and holding too many debates.
Jackson Vents Frustration
The Rev. Jesse Jackson devoted part of his closing remarks to venting his frustration over the number of forums and debates. Another is scheduled in Iowa on Sunday on environmental issues, the same subject the candidates debated in New Hampshire last weekend.
"Whoever can keep your attention tonight during this debate on education deserves to be your next President," Jackson told the audience of 120. He added dryly: "It's an exciting night in the life of American politics."
The candidates did, however, use the opportunity to attack each other on topics that had little to do with education, a subject on which they mostly agree. Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who is leading here in the polls, took the brunt of the blows and remained standing. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who are just below Simon in Iowa polls, were also forced to fend off attacks.
Simon Attacked on Deficit
During a period in which the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt asked Simon why he supported a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and voted for the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law. Babbitt, calling both measures gimmicks, demanded to know what cuts and revenue-raising measures Simon would support to cut the budget deficit.
Simon defended his votes, saying they were needed to get the budget-cutting process moving, and noted that he has voted for a cigarette tax increase and an oil import fee to raise revenues.
Gephardt ridiculed Dukakis' plan to raise revenue by going after delinquent taxpayers, a stand Dukakis has been criticized for in other debates.
On education, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. went after Gephardt, who is perceived as his strongest competitor, besides Jackson, in the South. In deriding tones, Gore portrayed Gephardt as an opportunist who flip-flops on issues.
He asked Gephardt to explain why during the debate he called education a top priority and opposed tuition tax credits, but as a congressman fought against creation of a federal education department and voted for tuition tax credits.
Gephardt said he had been against removing education from the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare and making it an independent department because of a "tight budget bind" at the time. However, Gephardt said, he would not now favor dismantling the Department of Education.
He said he favored tuition tax credits to assist those with children in private schools at a time when the public education system was not in such need of federal support and now opposes such credits because they are not "the most needed."
Gore snidely summed up Gephardt's response and added that the congressman reminded him of a politician who ended every speech saying, "Well, them's my views. If you don't like them, I'll change them."
The candidates agreed that teachers' salaries should be raised, parents should be more involved in schools and schools should be held accountable for the test scores of their students. They all opposed tuition tax credits and refused to endorse a movement that calls for children to be taught at home.
Pay Tied to Performance
Gephardt stressed "linking pay to performance." Babbitt called for a nationally subsidized day care voucher system and fantasized aloud about wishing to issue a proclamation that would require parents, "under penalty of death," to read to their children every night.
Dukakis said that as President he would devote $250 million--"less than one-tenth of 'Star Wars' "--to a fund for teacher excellence. The money would go for scholarships, teacher recruiting and sabbaticals for teachers, he said.