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Gore's Agenda for Education: Choice and Accountability

Reform: Remarks to students and supporters underline closeness of race in Tennessee. Bush has championed similar proposals.


NASHVILLE — Continuing his bid to reclaim the mantle of reform, Al Gore on Wednesday said he would build his education agenda around choice and accountability--ideas that rival George W. Bush has championed as the centerpiece of his own proposals.

"I will bring about major change in education, by fighting to raise standards for every child, and provide new choices for every family," Gore told a crowd of supporters at Tennessee State University here.

Gore's speech at this historically black college constituted an effort to regain both ideological and geographic ground that he had expected to secure by now.

On the one hand, his visit to Tennessee just two weeks before the election underscored the continued pressure he faces in his home state from Bush.

On the other, the speech--following Tuesday's address on the role of government--intensified a belated effort from Gore to rebut Bush's charge that he threatens a return to big government liberalism. Even many Democrats worry that Bush's allegation, which Gore had not systematically sought to rebut until this week, has been hurting the vice president.

Despite the vice president's local ties, Tennessee only narrowly supported Bill Clinton and Gore in 1996 and remains surprisingly competitive this year. Tweaking Gore, the Republican ticket bracketed his visit: The Texas governor appeared here Tuesday and his vice presidential nominee, Dick Cheney, is due in the state today.

Gore's own running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, accompanied him to the speech here and a large rally later in Jackson, Tenn. As supporters waved "Welcome Home Al" signs, Gore urged the crowd to show "passion" in the campaign's final days. "I need you to fight for me so I can fight for you," he said.

In his Nashville speech, Gore seized on a Rand Corp. study released Tuesday that concluded Texas' education reforms had not produced gains on national student tests nearly as great as the advances on state tests that Bush cites to support his education reform ideas. The Rand researchers questioned whether the gains on the state exams were driven in part by excessive "teaching to the test" in Texas classrooms.

Alluding to that conclusion, Gore declared: "We can't afford to just teach kids how to take a state test, while leaving them with serious learning deficits. . . . We need to measure performance with tests that have integrity."

Wasting no time, the Democratic National Committee announced Wednesday that it would air ads in six battleground states to highlight the study.

Bush aides--who vigorously disputed the Rand study Tuesday--said Gore's remarks Wednesday revealed him as a defender of the "status quo" in education.

"Gore's attack on the Texas education system is a thinly veiled attempt to discredit the education reform and accountability measures that have taken place in states around the country," said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. "While Gov. Bush is offering bold reforms for our public schools through accountability, Al Gore is making the case for the status quo."

It was precisely that Bush argument--the contention that Gore has been "an obstacle to reform" on education and other issues--that the vice president's speech Wednesday seemed designed to refute. For weeks, Bush has painted Gore as a big-spending liberal who would expand the power and reach of Washington, while portraying himself as a reformer committed to expanding choices for families on a range of concerns from Social Security to education.

After failing to systematically challenge that accusation during the three presidential debates, Gore in a Little Rock speech Tuesday insisted that he was "for a smaller, smarter government that . . . gives more choices to our families."

On Wednesday, Gore again stressed centrist themes, highlighting the elements of his education agenda meant to increase choice for parents and accountability for students, teachers and parents.

Gore argued that his plan would increase options by providing states grants to expand the availability of preschool, by encouraging the spread of charter schools (which compete with traditional public schools), and by offering a tax credit for tuition that he said would "let every family have the chance and the choice of sending a son or daughter to college."

Gore also maintained that his proposals would impose a more rigorous accountability system than Bush. Bush has proposed that states be given greater flexibility to spend federal education dollars if they agree to test every student in math and reading every year from third through eighth grade; states that improved performance would receive financial bonuses. Those that didn't could lose federal funds.

Gore's plan would use existing federal tests, which are given less frequently to a smaller group of students, to measure state performance. But Gore noted Wednesday that he would also require states to test new teachers, something Bush doesn't require. And, he said his agenda would require states to implement plans for intervening in schools that fail to improve student performance--to the point of potentially dismissing the principal and teachers.

That approach, Gore argued, would reach more students than Bush's proposal to provide private school vouchers to low-income parents at schools that fail to improve student performance for three years. Under Bush's plan, Gore insisted, "only a fraction of students would get help, and the few who got help would receive only a fraction of their tuition."

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