GOV. GEORGE W. Bush is starting to graft policies onto his presidential campaign, and he has begun with a good subject. The education of poor children, which he discussed before a Hispanic audience in Los Angeles recently, is a matter of huge concern, particularly in light of economic change that shrinks opportunities for unqualified workers. Mr. Bush appears serious on this issue.
Mr. Bush wants education goals to be simple and clear, so that the essentials don't get drowned in a long list of secondary targets. He wants to measure progress toward these goals with tests: Otherwise, it is impossible to know which teachers and pupils are doing well and which need special attention. When tests reveal persistent failure, the governor wants someone to take responsibility. In his support of targets, tests and accountability, Mr. Bush's ideas are indistinguishable from those of the Clinton administration.
Mr. Bush also advocates a federal role in preschool literacy education. Again, his ideas resemble those of his opponents: Al Gore has called for universal preschooling. Moreover, Mr. Bush's preferred vehicle for preschool education has a Democratic feel. The governor wants to beef up Head Start, one of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs.
Despite all this centrism, Mr. Bush walked into a hornets' nest when he declared that parents fed up with persistently awful public schools should have the option of withdrawing from them. Within hours, Mr. Bush had been attacked from the right, by critics who think he should have promised to throw the presidency's weight wholeheartedly behind school voucher programs. And Mr. Gore denounced him for wanting to drain resources from the public school system.
Mr. Bush's proposal deserves better than that. The danger in school choice is that it drains motivated children from public schools without necessarily spurring those schools to get better. But Mr. Bush seems sensitive to this worry. He declares that schools should be given three years to improve test scores; only if they fail would their Title I federal grants be converted into scholarships for pupils, who may use them to pay for tutoring, for a private school or for other educational purposes.
Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about bad schools: The argument is over who should be trusted to fix these schools. Both Mr. Bush and the Clinton administration hope that state governments will impose higher standards in the first instance. If that fails, the administration proposes that federal regulators should weigh in, requiring state authorities to make new efforts to train teachers, reform curricula and ultimately close underperformers. Rather than trust federal intervention, Mr. Bush would rather empower parents with scholarships. This is a debate worth having, and a presidential campaign is an excellent occasion for it.