MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS -- Calling for a renewed emphasis on phonics, spelling bees and diplomas that truly mean something, Bob Dole charged yesterday that President Clinton has allowed teachers' unions to block much-needed education reforms.
"You cannot reform our schools, and at the same time reap generous campaign contributions from the very groups who have run our public schools into the ground," the Republican presidential contender said at a Roman Catholic high school here. "You cannot be a leader in education, and at the same time be the pliant pet of militant teachers unions, currying favor with the very same vested interests who are fighting reform."
As Arkansas governor and as a 1992 presidential candidate, Clinton spoke "fervently about saving our schools," Dole said. But during Clinton's tenure, public education has worsened "in every possible way," Dole contended, pointing to lower test scores, higher dropout rates and illiteracy.
Dole blamed an administration that he said listens only to teachers and bureaucrats who use tax dollars to experiment with teaching fads. As president, Dole promised, he would pay more attention to parents and students, who he said should be able to depend on learning the "three Rs through proven methods."
The Clinton campaign fired back that Dole had voted in the Senate to cut spending on many of the programs he advocated yesterday, and last year helped push through the deepest cuts ever in federal education funds.
"Now, he's try to turn this around because he sees how important education is, and he needs an issue to get him out of the jam he's in right now," said Joe Lockhart, a Clinton campaign spokesman.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that Dole is a "Johnny-come-lately to the discussion about education reform." While college aptitude test scores are stagnant, Shanker said, they were no higher in the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Beginning a monthlong drive before the Republican National Convention to flesh out his "campaign to restore the American dream," Dole is trying to wrestle the education issue from Clinton, who has long claimed it as his own.
Trailing by more than 20 percentage points in most polls, Dole is working to find themes to help his campaign catch fire.
For this effort, which also marks a new resolve to keep campaign coverage focused on his message rather than on embarrassing misstatements, Dole is being accompanied on a three-day jaunt to the Midwest by Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett.
Both Republicans are former secretaries of education who made peace with Dole after Alexander, supported by Bennett, ran against Dole in the primaries.
The two helped Dole write his speech yesterday, which called for an "education consumer's warranty" that would lead to competency testing for teachers and push schools to focus on traditional teaching methods.
In a speech today in Milwaukee, Dole is expected to propose scholarships to allow poor students to attend private schools of their choice.
Clinton favors allowing parents to choose their children's public schools. But he opposes giving out vouchers, subsidized by taxpayer money, so parents can send their children to private schools.
Dole's attack on Clinton's alliance with teachers' unions reflects the long-standing relationship between Democratic politicians and teachers.
At recent Democratic national conventions, members of teacher unions have held more delegate seats than any other single group. The political action committees run by the National Education Association and other teacher unions are also a generous source of donations to Democratic candidates.
During the 1993-1994 election cycle, the NEA gave $2.2 million to Democrats and $25,800 to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission figures cited by the Dole campaign.
Teachers' unions have resisted Republican efforts to provide private "school choice" through vouchers because, the unions say, such vouchers would threaten the financial base of the public school system. The unions have also opposed efforts to adopt measures to reward teachers according to their performance.
In his speech, Dole criticized the president for refusing to allow a "modest school choice" program for students in the District of Columbia -- even though both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore send their own children to private schools. The Washington program was resisted by the NEA.
More generally, Dole argued, Clinton has failed to stand up to an education establishment that has strayed from traditional subjects and overlooks the basics.
"While students in Europe and Japan are learning math, science and language, our kids are learning to get in touch with their feelings," Dole asserted, drawing laughter from several hundred assembled Republicans.
Pub Date: 7/18/96