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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.

Boxer, Fong Focusing on Education

Polls show voters prefer Democratic incumbent's views. But Republican who backs vouchers refuses to concede the issue to her.


SAN BERNARDINO — In the final stretch of an arduous reelection fight, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is returning to an issue that has been a personal passion and a political asset: education.

The California Democrat's campaign schedule is packed with school visits, like the one she made recently to the low-income, racially mixed Curtis Middle School here, where she talked enthusiastically about increasing federal support for after-school programs to keep youths from drifting into crime and drugs.

In the Senate race, as in many elections, education has been cited by voters as the top issue. And two recent opinion polls indicated that voters prefer Boxer's views on education to those of her Republican opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong.

The independent Field Poll showed voters preferring Boxer over Fong on education by 40% to 28%. And a Los Angeles Times poll found that among voters for whom education is the top issue, 49% are for Boxer and 37% for Fong.

But Fong is not conceding the education vote. He has his own credentials on the issue, and education is a common topic in his speeches.

He is a recruiter in urban schools for his alma mater, the Air Force Academy; as state treasurer, he has worked with school districts to sell construction bonds at the lowest possible interest rates "so they still have money to hire teachers," and he is the father of two teenagers who are now in public schools.

Both candidates have adopted the contemporary mantra that public education is ailing and needs emergency help. But their solutions are at odds.

Boxer believes that public education has been starved for money and needs more support at both the state and federal levels. Fong thinks that more money is only a Band-Aid unless the structure of public education is changed to reduce the power of teachers unions.

Boxer opposes the voucher system, under which parents would receive public money to be used for either private or public education for their children. She sees it as the potential death knell for public education. Many affluent parents would opt for private education, she says,and schools would be left with a higher percentage of low-income students.

Public education, she fears, would then quickly lose political importance.

The cornerstone of Fong's education position is support for a voucher system and tax credits for parents sending children to private schools, although a voucher plan was turned down overwhelmingly by California voters five years ago.

Under a voucher system, schools would have to compete for students.

"Choice breeds competition, and competition will bring reform," said Fong, using a line that often brings applause during his speeches.

Among the reforms that Fong favors is merit pay for better teachers and an end to tenure so that weak teachers can be fired.

Boxer blasts Fong's voucher idea as one that would help only a small percentage of students.

The voucher dispute is part of a larger philosophic split between the candidates. Boxer and Fong are on opposite sides of whether the government and teachers' unions, such as the politically powerful California Teachers Assn., help or hinder efforts to rescue schools.

Fong would like to greatly curtail the U.S. Department of Education and calls it a wasteful bureaucracy. He says that teachers unions put the job security of members above all else and thus thwart reform and protect incompetent instructors.

Boxer believes that the state and U.S. education departments serve useful roles in pursuing national priorities and that teachers associations deserve respect and gratitude. Teachers unions have been among her most loyal supporters, providing contributions and campaign workers.

Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, says that stressing education is a good way for Boxer to reach middle-of-the-road voters and Republican women, particularly the "suburban soccer moms." Fong's views, he says, are popular among the more conservative wing of the Republican Party but will not help him attract more centrist voters.

"Hitting at the Department of Education and teachers unions and flogging the voucher system will help Fong with his political base among conservatives, but that's not where he needs help," Jacobson said. "Most people do not have a negative view of teachers unions, and only Republican ideologues are still furious at the Department of Education."

When she came to Curtis Middle School, Boxer was met by Mikki Cichocki, president of the 2,400-member San Bernardino Teachers Assn. The group's members work the telephones nightly to encourage voters to support Boxer.

"We're with you all the way," Cichocki told Boxer.

Meanwhile, Fong's campaign is looking for a venue for an eleventh-hour reprise of a speech that he gave in August blasting teachers' unions for blocking reform and alleging that Boxer "votes the teachers union position right down the line" to protect the status quo.

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