IT SEEMS AS IF the major presidential candidates are running more for the schoolhouse than the White House. George W. Bush brags that he has visited more than 100 schools so far. Al Gore has promised weekly, all-day school visits during the campaign.
Both proclaim K-12 education as the No. 1 issue. That's no surprise, since that's how voters rank it.
But what is revolutionary is the nationalization of school politics. Only a few years ago, local control of schools was sacred political dogma. Now, like kids in a schoolyard, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush beat up on each other almost daily over just about everything to do with education: vouchers, preschool programs, remedies for low-performing schools, interventions for low-performing students, teachers unions, teacher recruitment and even school-level policies on class size, phonics and discipline.
What's going on? Does the country need a school superintendent-in-chief? And if so, what marks should Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore get on their education report cards?
There's little disagreement over the national stake in reforming K-12 schools, particularly to close the wide gap between rich and poor, white and minority children. No less an authority than Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently linked the nation's economic future to improving the nation's schools.
Yet, a national problem in public schools has not historically required a federal solution. Until lately, responsibility for K-12 education was entrenched in more than 15,000 separate school districts across the country.
But that has changed dramatically. President Clinton has stirred or ridden the wave of public support for more federal influence and forced congressional Republicans to go along. Now, Mr. Bush -- sharply breaking with GOP orthodoxy -- is preaching nearly as hard as Mr. Gore for an expanded federal role.
That role is most critical in the area of federal funding. Our nation needs a superintendent-in-chief who will first and foremost alleviate the inequality of educational resources afforded poor, predominantly minority students.
States are supposed to assure equal opportunity. But after 25 years of litigation and legislation, they -- including Maryland -- have failed dismally. Academic standards have been raised, but not the money to pay for the expensive extra instruction needed by below-standard students. Disparities in per-pupil resources remain huge within states and are even larger between states.
Throughout the nation's history, the federal government has had to rise to the challenge of remedying injustices inflicted on poor people and protecting civil rights. In today's high-tech society and economy, an adequate education must be viewed and guaranteed as a fundamental civil right.
Mr. Gore has pledged additional spending of $110 billion, compared to Mr. Bush's $47 billion, over 10 years. However, such increases would not change dramatically the federal government's meager 7 percent share of all national spending on public K-12 schools. Either amount is a small down payment on at least the $50 billion increase per year required to meet the needs of poor students. But Mr. Gore and the Democrats are far more likely to step up the pace.
Mr. Bush says the real issue isn't how much money but how well it's spent. He's right that accountability must be a pillar of federal policy alongside more money. But accountability compels Congress to set standards that conflict with local control.
For Mr. Bush in particular, this poses a slippery slope. He voices the GOP party line about ending the proliferation of federal grants and loosening strings. At the same time, his accountability proposals tie aid to federal mandates on traditional local matters such as school testing and providing students at chronically poor-performing schools with vouchers or private tutoring at public expense.
Mr. Gore opposes vouchers but would require poor-performing schools to be reopened as charter schools. He is also more protective of earmarked aid, such as Title I grants for low-income students.
Regrettably, neither candidate is pushing too hard to revive the idea of voluntary national content standards (what students are supposed to know) and tests (how well they know it) proposed by both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations. Accountability on a national scale requires fair comparisons to be drawn on student performance nationwide. Yet -- though basic lessons in reading, math, science and history should be the same in all regions of the country -- states and local districts are all over the map in their standards and tests.
Another major criterion for aspiring superintendents-in-chief is their potential for using the presidential bully blackboard.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore seem to have passion for the cause of public schools and the political will to rally the nation behind federal, state and local action. Mr. Bush's education track record as governor of Texas is impressive, and he conceivably might bring about a Nixon-went-to-China-like reversal of conservative opposition to federal activism.
Still, on my report card, Mr. Gore gets higher grades than Mr. Bush, largely because of his much stronger position on large-scale aid targeted at low-income students and schools.
Fortunately, no matter who's elected, the presidential debate has boosted hope for a bipartisan compact that would stretch federal responsibility: vastly increased funding tied to higher accountability standards and modest experiments with vouchers.
But don't take my word for it. Do your own homework, and don't play hooky on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary.