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Democrats, GOP Travel Down Similar Paths to School Reform

Rhetoric aside, leaders from both parties are forging a quiet consensus as they put an emphasis on learning.


WASHINGTON — With the Cold War, crime and even the federal deficit fading as hot-button issues, reforming America's schools has surged to the top of the list of voters' concerns this election year.

And politicians in both parties, starved for topics that can arouse an often apathetic electorate, are filling the air with heated rhetoric and partisan bickering--especially at the national level. Republicans rail against teachers unions and the "education monopoly," touting free-market competition and giving parents more choice in their children's schools. Democrats, meantime, present themselves as besieged Gallahads, fighting off conservative schemes that favor the rich and weaken education for all.

This week, for instance, when congressional Republicans passed an education savings plan estimated to yield a meager $7 to $37 a year per family in lower taxes, supporters declared that it would "empower" parents and create new opportunities for students "to change their lives." President Clinton, for his part, is threatening to veto the bill, considering it a subsidy for affluent families that would drain money needed to hire more teachers and fix leaky schoolhouse roofs.

Yet for all the emphasis on differences, there is a surprising degree of consensus among political leaders who actually are engaged in changing the nation's schools--especially at the state level.

"Education is to a state what national defense is to the federal government," declares Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush, seeking reelection with one eye on the White House in 2000. "As we move into the 21st century," asserts Gray Davis, Democratic candidate for governor of the nation's most populous state, "California will not prosper unless we fix the schools."

"Education is the most important public policy question facing this country," says Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer.

"We reformed welfare and we can fix education too," vows GOP National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson.

Moreover, the blueprints for reform embraced by Republicans and Democrats not only run close to parallel but also recognize that popular demands for change mean traditional party constituencies and ideological orthodoxy will have to yield.

Among the sometimes surprising realities behind the rhetoric:

* Although greater choice is favored by both parties in the abstract, many Republicans are edging closer to Democrats in opposing vouchers that let parents use tax money for either private or public schooling. Some fear that vouchers could grow into a costly entitlement. Others, glimpsing the depth of continuing popular commitment to public education registered in opinion polls, now present "choice" in terms of carefully hedged freedom to select from among public schools within a given system.

* Despite verbal attacks on the traditional public school system and calls for helping parents opt out, no significant flight from public education seems to be taking place. A slightly smaller percentage of U.S. children, about 11%, attend private schools today than did 10 and 20 years ago. Suburban parents "usually think their schools are OK whether they are or not," Republican consultant David Keene says.

* Though Republicans hold it as an article of faith that throwing money at a problem is bad, GOP governors in fact are throwing large sums into education. Bush has allocated $32 million to set up intensive reading academies throughout Texas and hopes to spend $200 million more in his second term, mostly on reading instruction and teacher training. Republican Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois boasts of raising his state's spending for education by $1.5 billion.

* Democrats depend on teachers unions for financial and organizational support, and Republicans see local control of schools as a bedrock principle. Nonetheless, many governors in both parties are pushing for uniform academic achievement standards, universal testing and "report cards" for individual schools, all of which make many classroom teachers uneasy and pressure local officials to revamp their programs in line with state expectations.

Why are politicians rushing to embrace education as an issue?

At one level, they are simply responding to the fact that, when one problem fades, voters turn to another. At a deeper level, the growing focus on education represents more than hot air rushing into a political vacuum.

Despite the current prosperity, there is widespread public concern that a fundamental tenet of American life is in danger, the idea--embedded in the national consciousness almost as deeply as reverence for the Three Rs themselves--that each new generation will do better than its parents. Without more and better education, increasing numbers of Americans appear to believe, their children will have little chance to live what politicians like to call the American dream in an increasingly competitive global economy.

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