MODESTO, Calif. — Candidates for the U.S. Senate hit the campaign trail Thursday with their post-debate attention focused on education, giving nearly simultaneous midday speeches about their divergent visions for the future of public instruction in this country.
Polls show that the topic is among Americans' top concerns, and it promises to be a major issue in the contest between incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer and state Treasurer Matt Fong. Although the two candidates in their first debate Wednesday played up their differences on hot-button issues such as abortion and the death penalty, education--about which Wednesday's panelists did not query them--may be among the areas where they differ most.
Republican Fong, 44, and Democrat Boxer, 57, agree that public education in this country is ill, but their proposed cures are quite different. Fong would create competition in the marketplace by offering parents financial support, through vouchers and tax-free savings accounts, for choosing private schools. Boxer would improve public school conditions by hiring more teachers and building more classrooms.
"I believe in school choice," Fong told 700 people at the 37th Harvest Luncheon, sponsored by the Modesto Chamber of Commerce to raise money for community college scholarships. "With choice you get competition, and with competition you get reform."
Fong also said that if elected he would push for back-to-basics methods such as teaching spelling and using phonics to teach reading. He also supports merit pay for teachers and an end to tenure systems that guarantee employment.
"If you do the job, you keep it. If you don't, you lose it," he said.
Picking a popular target of California Republicans, Fong attacked the Los Angeles Unified School District, saying that he pulled his own children out of the district in 1988 because of an overemphasis on self-esteem. The teenagers now attend school in La Puente Unified in Hacienda Heights.
"You know a child down there [in L.A. Unified] does not have to know what 5 times 7 equals?" Fong said. "That would require rote memorization . . . and that could hurt a student's self-esteem."
Although Fong has been reaching out to minorities during his campaign, in Modesto he drew applause for lambasting the Oakland Unified School District for its use of black English to help African American students learn mainstream English. That controversial program is known as Ebonics, but Fong called it "ubonics."
"I'm not trying to be critical," he said. "But you cannot get a job at IBM speaking ubonics."
Fong clearly knew that California's agricultural San Joaquin Valley is not Boxer-friendly territory. But having been asked by Chamber of Commerce organizers to keep his remarks nonpartisan, he mentioned his opponent only once.
However, in an earlier version of the speech, released instead as a policy statement, Fong slammed the incumbent for her votes against vouchers, suggesting that she is influenced by her dependence on teachers union campaign contributions. Since Boxer was elected to Congress in 1982, she has received more than $70,000 from the two national unions.
"The leadership of the . . . teachers union steadfastly opposes any basic reforms to the public school system and any efforts to make it compete," Fong's printed statement said. "Ms. Boxer votes the teachers union position right down the line."
Several hundred miles to the south, Boxer hosted an "education summit" at Santa Monica High School attended by 200 teachers and administrators. Flanked by two top education bureaucrats--state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley--Boxer reiterated her support for a federal plan to set higher standards for instructors and students.
"Matt Fong wants to help 5% of the students," Boxer said in an interview, "but I want to help all kids. Vouchers won't fix crumbling schools, vouchers won't put more teachers in classroom, vouchers won't make schools safer for all kids."
Eastin and Riley, both fellow Democrats, praised Boxer's record on education, particularly her bill that expanded after-school programs.
"Too many members of Congress talk the talk on education but when it comes to walking the walk, they have run out the door," Riley said.
Boxer is an enthusiastic supporter of the $1.2-billion initiative unveiled by President Clinton in his State of the Union address that contains provisions such as hiring more teachers and demanding that schools set higher achievement goals. Republicans oppose it because it does not permit vouchers as an alternative.
In 1997, Boxer authored a bill to provide tax breaks for companies that provide new computers to schools; she also prodded the Department of Interior to dun oil companies that were slow to pay royalties on oil taken from public lands--funds earmarked for education. California's share was $75 million.