This Year, Candidates Go Back to School
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 1998; Page A1 The hottest political issue around, if campaign commercials are any guide, may be too many students in America's classrooms.
Georgia gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner (R) promises in one television spot to "raise teacher standards and reduce class size."
Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) vows in another to "hire 4,000 new teachers to lower class sizes."
Republican Heather Wilson, who just won a special House election in New Mexico, is pictured in a classroom as a fifth-grade teacher vouches for her: "As a mom with kids, she understands the need to improve our schools."
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) speaks to the camera in yet another classroom ad: "As a mother, I know how important it is for kids to get a good education."
As the midterm elections begin to heat up, candidates across the country are filling the airwaves with cliche shots of smiling schoolchildren and promises to reform education. With the economy booming and crime receding, concern about public schools has rocketed to the top of many campaign agendas.
"You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to find this issue," said Democratic media consultant David Doak. "If you do a poll, it's the thing that pops up first. The problem in using it as a campaign issue is it's hard to get separation from the other candidates."
The ads touch on a wide variety of proposals, from raising academic standards to tightening discipline, from renovating decaying schools to attacking teachers' unions. Whether these themes will translate into real action is another question. Successful congressional candidates may discover that most education policies are determined at the state and local level, not on Capitol Hill.
But there is no doubting the issue's potency. In a recent Harris poll, more respondents expressed concern about education 19 percent than any other subject. Next was crime, followed by Social Security, taxes and health care. Analysts say the education issue resonates most strongly with women and suburban voters.
"Candidates on all sides have discovered that education is the No. 1 thing on voters' minds," said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association. She cautioned, however, that some candidates are pushing "sound-bite solutions to pretty serious problems."
In a sense, the sizzling economy has not only taken the punch out of traditional pocketbook issues but cleared the way for promises to improve local schools. With the federal budget in the black for the first time in three decades and state treasuries flush with extra cash, candidates are not shying away from education proposals that will cost money.
Political professionals say the issue has long favored Democrats, who tend to support more spending on domestic problems and are often aligned with teachers' unions. But many Republicans are staking out their own positions for improving education, a significant departure from the 1995 drive by congressional Republicans to abolish the Education Department.
"The issue is important and it's up for grabs," said GOP consultant Larry McCarthy, who is making Millner's ads in Georgia. "Republicans have worked hard to stress a back-to-basics, no-frills approach to education. There's less focus on education as a spending issue and more as a standards issue."
Alex Castellanos, who produced ads for Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, said the issue must be framed as "40 years of failure" while Democrats controlled Congress. "They are responsible for the massive failure that is America's education system today, and our job as Republicans is to hold them accountable," he said.
Some candidates are trying. In New York, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R) ran an early round of ads attacking the state teachers' union as obsessed with "perks and privileges" and blocking efforts to end automatic tenure for its members.
By contrast, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who hopes to oppose D'Amato, said in an ad that he has been working toward "reducing class size, raising standards and making college tuition tax-deductible," in part by fighting House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Some Democrats, meanwhile, favor a get-tough approach. Georgia Secretary of State Lewis Massey (D), who is challenging Millner, demands "zero tolerance for guns and drugs in school" and promises to "send every parent a school-performance report card." But Massey also jumps on the class-size issue, a national problem fueled by growing immigration and surging birth rates among baby boomers. One of Massey's spots has a parade of students each placing an apple on the teacher's desk until she is barely visible behind a wall of fruit.
Education issues loomed large in last month's primaries in California, where schools were once the nation's envy. In a Los Angeles Times/CNN exit poll, education was by far the most important issue for those who voted for the Democratic candidates for governor. Supporters of the Republican nominee, state Attorney General Dan Lungren, ranked education second, after crime.
One Doak ad for the Democratic winner, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, noted that he was "endorsed by California teachers for his plan to improve our schools." His defeated rival, business executive Al Checchi, posed with young students and billed himself as the "one politician with the courage to invest in our schools." State Treasurer Matt Fong (R), who won the Senate nomination, said in an ad that he had helped achieve "smaller class sizes in our schools and more teachers."
The picture is much the same in Maryland. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and running mate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend say in an ad that they have "led the fight to improve education" by "building and renovating 6,000 classrooms to reduce class size." A Democratic challenger, Ray Schoenke, promises "after-school programs that will keep our children busy and learning" and says "class size will be reduced to 20." The leading GOP candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, says one of her top issues will be the need to target more state aid to classrooms.
"Clearly it's on the front burner in people's minds," said Saul Schorr, a Democratic media consultant who also works with teachers' unions. "Even in places where schools are great, there seems to be a little more apprehension than in the past."
In states where schools are not so great, campaign ads have an extra degree of urgency. In the Alabama governor's race, a Schorr ad for Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, the Democratic nominee, features letters from children complaining about poor conditions in trailers that serve as temporary classrooms. "As governor I won't rest until every portable classroom is removed from Alabama," Siegelman said.
In this environment, makers of negative ads can just as readily accuse a candidate of being soft on education as soft on crime. The sniping in the special House election in the Albuquerque area, won last week by Republican Wilson, is a case in point.
An ad for Democrat Phil Maloof accused Wilson, the state's secretary of children, youth and families, of failing to vote in the last three school elections. "Sorry, Heather, your education record just doesn't make the grade," the narrator said as a dunce cap floated onto Wilson's head. But Wilson also played rough, charging Maloof, a state senator, with missing nine of 10 education committee meetings. "Any child knows 10 percent attendance means a failing grade," her ad said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company