After a season of scandals and scandal-mongering, American voters are tempted to turn off, tune out and drop away from politics and civic life. Before they do, they should catch the signals coming their way from a new batch of presidential candidates. They're not just raising "issues" in an effort to win votes. They're talking about problems and how to solve them.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley are about to start a serious argument over how to cover the 44 million Americans who lack health insurance. Gore made his bid this week with a sensible if modest plan to help kids and the near-elderly.
Even more striking were the reviews given Texas Gov. George W. Bush's education proposals -- not by Republicans but by Democrats. The shrewdest among them pointed to serious shortcomings in the approach Bush outlined in a California speech last week. But they also see Bush pushing the schools debate in the right direction.
"It's very encouraging," says Rep. George Miller, a liberal Democrat from California. "There are a number of themes there that are very consistent with what we've been saying about school and teacher accountability, and also the accountability of the political system."
"What's good about it," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who is a partner with Miller in pushing for improved teaching, "is the emphasis on standards and measuring performance and building accountability into the schools."
Bush shrewdly distanced himself from many of the hot-button education issues and avoided teacher-bashing. "Education is too important to have a strategy of divide and conquer," he said. Bush also condemned the idea that disadvantaged kids should not be held to high standards. This entailed "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Good line, and right, too.
Bush's core policy proposal was also refreshing, if flawed. He wants to use the federal government's Title 1 program -- it gives $7.7 billion a year to schools that educate poor children -- as a lever to force states to test children regularly to see if they're making progress. Schools would have three years to get their act together. If at the end of three years there is still no progress, Bush said, federal funds would be used to give parents of poor kids a $1,500 voucher that they could use at the school of their choice, including private schools.
In pushing for testing, Bush is breaking with some of his fellow Republicans who, on principle, don't want the federal government to do much of anything about local schools. Gary Bauer, trying to corral the party's right flank in his quest for the presidency, quickly denounced Bush for proposing "another layer of bureaucracy at an even larger federal Department of Education."
But as Bush, Miller and Bingaman all argue, if tests aren't given, administrators aren't held accountable and parents are denied useful information on how their schools are doing. What meaning does the word "choice" have then?
The problem with Bush's idea is what he'd do when schools fail. Vouchers are not always a bad idea. But in many areas, a $1,500 voucher would give parents no choice at all. "In many parts of my state, you go to public school or you don't go to school," says Bingaman. "There's no place to go with a voucher for $1,500."
And Miller sees Bush evading the reason so many school systems fail: "Poor kids go to poor schools and get a poor education" because their local school districts lack money. "They can't pay their teachers as well, they don't have the education materials, they don't have the facilities," Miller says.
Kati Haycock, president of the nonpartisan Education Trust in Washington, calls Bush's education record in Texas "impressive" and likes his approach to accountability. But she raises the right doubts about his vouchers solution.
"If he means just tossing kids into a set of private schools that are totally unaccountable in terms of . . . having high standards and high student achievement, then I don't think that's the most effective strategy," she says. "On the other hand, there may be some circumstances where, if there are no high-quality public schools available, we may have to think about that." Vouchers, in other words, are a last resort, not an alternative to fixing the public schools.
But wherever this debate goes, it's a big improvement on the politics of ideological cheap shots and scandal. Any chance we can stick with it?