After the release of Vice President Gore's detailed education plan last week, he and fellow presidential front-runner George W. Bush traded barbs over the issue.
The Texas governor tagged Gore as a big spender because the vice president's proposal would cost $115 billion over a decade, a sum the Republican called "fairly typical of somebody who runs around the country saying, 'I'm going to spend money and solve your problems.' " He also said Gore's plan for failing public schools--close them, reorganize them and then reopen them, with financial incentives for improvement--would leave some children "trapped in failure."
Gore responded by criticizing Bush's plan to provide vouchers that would enable low-income students to shift from failing public schools to private schools, describing it as "an ideologically driven mistake" that would undermine public schools.
But for all the candidates' efforts to draw a stark contrast between their respective education plans, their agendas have a good deal in common.
"Can you tell them apart?" said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents big-city districts. "Both seem to focus a lot on schools that aren't doing well and on improving accountability" for academic results.
In fact, the similarities between the Gore and Bush education agendas go still deeper, possibly reflecting the extent of political consensus on what needs to be done to improve schools. Both candidates have ideas for getting young children ready before they enter school, creating more charter schools as alternatives to regular public schools and working to stem school violence.
In his own way, each candidate also would expand the limited federal role in education, which polls show to be a major public concern ahead of next year's election. And their elaborate policy proposals draw upon their experiences in public office, Bush as the Republican governor of a state that has closed the gap in minority achievement and Gore in a Democratic administration that has broadened federal involvement in improving schools.
The candidates' near-consensus breaks down, however, over the centerpieces of their respective plans: Bush's modest voucher program and Gore's proposal to raise teacher salaries.
Under Bush's program, underperforming schools that receive funds under the Title I remedial program for disadvantaged students would be given three years to improve; if they didn't, students could request $1,500 vouchers, representing the average per pupil expenditure on Title I plus matching state funds. The vouchers could be applied toward private school tuition--which is generally greater than the voucher amount--or other educational services, such as private tutoring.
The federal government has never provided unrestricted funds that could be spent for elementary or secondary education in private schools.
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it a punitive, "educationally wrong" plan that would mean "taking money away from schools that are having problems." Her union and the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, have endorsed Gore.
Bush's plan also raises an equity issue because not all eligible students receive Title I services and some, therefore, would not be able to get a voucher even if they attended a failing school. Under her similar proposal, Diane Ravitch, a former Education Department official, would solve that problem by making Title I an entitlement--which would boost federal spending on the $8 billion program.
While Bush threatens failing schools with a stick--vouchers--Gore offers a carrot, in the form of financial rewards for improved performance.
But Gore's top priority, detailed in a speech last week, is improving the quality of teachers, especially in struggling schools. He would attempt to do that by expanding federal support for teacher salaries--a direction set by President Clinton with his program to hire 50,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes in the earliest grades.
Under Gore's plan, teachers in high-poverty districts in cities or rural areas would have their salaries increased by $5,000, or $10,000 for certified master teachers, if the district established a rigorous program of training, mentoring and evaluation. He also would reinstitute a "teacher corps," providing $10,000 scholarships to college students who agree to work in "high need" schools for four years.
Gore's proposal would be costly. If his $115 billion plan were spread evenly over a decade, it would increase the Education Department's $36 billion budget by about a third. Given increases in the past few years, Gore's plan would cause the budget to have doubled since 1995.
Feldman and Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, said the $5,000 to $10,000 salary increases would help urban districts recruit better teachers. Casserly was not so sure.
"I don't think $5,000 across-the-board increases are going to accomplish much. I think $10,000 starts to make a difference," Casserly said.
Nationwide, teacher salaries average less than $42,000. They are usually lower in cities than in suburbs.
Chester E. Finn, an education analyst at the Manhattan Institute, questioned whether Washington should plunge deeper into paying teachers--a role played by states and local districts.
"It's just crazy for the federal government to start giving routine salary subsidies to teachers. Once you start doing it, you have to keep on doing it forever," Finn said. He also suggested that Gore's plan was not targeted enough to low-income schools--which are most in need of better qualified teachers--because the salary increases would "apply in far Northwest schools as in Anacostia."
Compared with Gore, Bush has said less about improving teacher quality, which some polls have indicated to be one of the public's favorite fixes for education. Research also has shown that a good teacher can have a big impact on student achievement.
"It's absolutely the most important thing we need to do to improve achievement," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.