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Bush, Gore stress schools

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The phrase was crafted as an ominous message for a prosperous time. And if Gov. George W. Bush again utters the words "education recession" in tonight's presidential debate, the message - though subject to dispute - could resonate with a public deeply concerned about its schools.

Education is sure to be a focus of the debate, because both candidates have put forth detailed proposals and because the issue has been near the top of voter concerns in surveys this year. Bush's advisers devised the term "education recession" to stoke concerns that under the Clinton-Gore administration, America's schools have faltered - and perhaps to raise images of a looming downturn in the nation's prosperity.

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But if a recession means a steady decline, as it does in economic terms, then the nation is not in an education recession, experts say. Public school students in the 1990s posted slight improvements in academic achievement, especially in math and science.

And it is not clear exactly what a president can do to boost achievement further, because public education remains primarily a state and local responsibility.

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"That's the great irony of this debate," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center of Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. "No matter who gets elected, the federal role in education is currently very tiny, and it's going to remain tiny."

By most measurements, educational achievement has improved, though only marginally. College board scores are up in math. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered nationally to 4th, 8th and 12th graders, math and science scores rose between 1990 and 1996. Reading scores largely remained steady.

But few education policy experts see much reason to cheer. Though minority achievement held firm in the past decade, scores among white students accelerated faster, widening the gap between minority and white students that had begun to close in the 1970s. And as the nation moves more deeply into a high-tech information age, the need for better education is outstripping the modest improvements in achievement.

"Achievement outcomes are as good as they have ever been," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington-based education reform group. "They're just not nearly as good as they should be."

Given the current environment, Bush education aides insist that the term recession is accurate.

"When we're in an era of unprecedented prosperity, we should not be stagnating," said Sara Youssef, a Bush education adviser.

Both Bush and Vice President Al Gore have devised ambitious education platforms that are more complementary than contradictory. But the candidates will surely accentuate their differences tonight.

"It's going to be a great debate for the American people to listen to and decide," said Jon Schnur, a former Clinton education director who now advises Gore on the issue.

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Where Gore's program would greatly expand the federal investment in early childhood and higher education, Bush's plan would focus on the nation's elementary and high schools.

Gore would devote considerably more money than Bush, $115 billion in spending and $55 billion more in tax credits over 10 years, compared with a total of $47 billion committed by Bush.

But the Texas governor has proposed the most eye-catching - and divisive - idea: to convert federal education aid to vouchers that could be used to cover tuition at private or parochial schools.

"That's a very big program," said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University. "Bush's plan could have a catalytic effect at the state and local levels. It could change the dialogue of education reform to focus on targeted vouchers."

Both candidates are building on the educational standards and accountability movement of the 1990s. The movement, in many ways, began with Bush's father and the America 2000 initiative, which set academic goals to be reached by this year. The Clinton administration built on that effort with Goals 2000, which funded specific reforms, and with legislation that required states to set standards and measure them.

Currently, 49 states have drafted statewide academic standards, and 48 states have tests to enforce them - up from just 15 states in 1996, Schnur said.

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Both Gore and Bush have proposed establishing a $500 million fund to reward states and school districts that raise test scores. But Bush's plan is tougher - and more intrusive, Loveless said.

Gore would rely on existing state systems and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered once in elementary school, once at the junior high school level and one in high school. By contrast, Bush would require states to test students every year from 3rd through 8th grades.

Under the Gore plan, a failing school could be shut down and reopened with a new principal and a new or retrained teaching staff.

Under Bush's plan, if a school failed to improve three years in a row, the federal money sent to that school's underprivileged students would be converted to $1,500 vouchers.

The voucher proposal has become a lightning rod in the education debate, evoking the wrath of the teachers' unions - which contend that it would drain money from the public schools - but the admiration of many education reformers.

"If you're a parent with a child caught in a failing school, it seems reasonable to experiment with radical ideas," said Ted Sanders, president of the Education Commission of the States, which tracks and aids reform efforts at the state level.

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Both candidates also seek to address the growing shortage of well-qualified teachers, through recruitment and training programs.

But Gore goes further than Bush, some experts say. He would require the testing of new teachers in their subject areas. And under his program, low-performing teachers could be removed. Gore has promised $8 billion for teacher recruitment and another $8 billion to raise the pay of teachers in poor school districts.

Districts that adopt aggressive teacher improvement programs could apply for the money. The money could be used to offer $5,000 raises for all teachers and $10,000 for teachers who meet newly adopted professional standards.

"Gore has done more with the teacher quality issue than Bush has," Haycock said, "and that's a surprising omission of Bush's."

Gore also has the more ambitious agenda of preschool education, though Bush would radically remake the Republican Party's philosophy on the issue.

The vice president hopes to make preschool for 4-year-old children available to any parent who wants it, through $50 billion in matching grants to the states. Gore would also spend $1 billion to expand Head Start, the federal government's existing early-childhood education program.

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Bush has no comparable expansion. But he would like to sharpen Head Start's educational focus, by moving it from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education. In effect, Bush would be expanding the power of a department that five years ago was targeted for elimination by his party.

"George Bush has recentered the Republican Party on education," Loveless said. "What Bush has done is brought this one big domestic policy issue - education - and made it part of the Republican platform."

Some policy experts remain skeptical about both candidates' plans. High-stakes testing, for example, is already prompting a backlash among some parents.

Gore's big-money initiatives, though they would double the federal commitment to education, could prove too small to matter. The current operating expenses of the nation's 89,000 elementary and high schools stands at $320 billion a year, Kirst said. Gore would add $11.5 billion to that figure.

"There are just too many kids and too many schools," Kirst said. "The federal government will always be a supplement, not a driving force."

Where the candidates stand: Education George W. Bush

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VOUCHERS

Would give federally funded $1,500 vouchers to students in schools that remain on a state's "failing" list for three years. The vouchers could be used at public, private or parochial schools.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Would require states to annually test students in grades 3 through 8 with a test that would have to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Education. Would establish a $500 million fund to reward schools that improve their test scores. States that do not improve test scores would lose federal funding.

TEACHERS

Would eliminate President Clinton's class-size reduction program, which seeks to hire 100,000 new teachers, and fold the savings into teacher recruiting and training projects worth $2.4 billion. Would expand the existing Troops-To-Teachers program, which provides incentives for retired military personnel to become teachers.

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FUNDING

Would increase the annual limit on contributions to tax-free education accounts from $500 to $5,000. Funds could be withdrawn for education costs, including private school tuition.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Would transfer Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education to sharpen the educational content. Would spend $1 billion a year on an early reading intervention effort and $400 million for after-school programs.

Al Gore

VOUCHERS

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Opposes vouchers but supports charter schools and public school choice. Would use federal money to triple the number of charter schools to 5,100 by 2005.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Would create a $500 million Accountability Fund to pay for state improvement plans. Failing schools would be shut down, and re-opened with a new principal and a new or retrained teaching staff. States would be rewarded for improvements on the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress test administered in the fourth, eighth and twelfth grades.

TEACHERS

Would continue President Clinton's effort to hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce class-size, and would add funds to build new, smaller schools or to repair and divide up aging school buildings. Would offer grants to poor districts to lure top teachers through higher salaries. Would establish a Teacher Corps to recruit professionals and better educated college graduates into teaching.

FUNDING

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Would create tax-free 401(j) accounts with contributions of up to $2,500 a year to encourage savings for education throughout a person's life. As with 401(k) accounts, employers would be encouraged to contribute. Would expand tax breaks on college tuition to make up to $10,000 a year tax-deductible.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Would establish $50 billion matching grants to the states to establish universal pre-school for all four-year-olds, and would add an additional $1 billion for Head Start. Would increase funding for after-school programs.

Where to watch

In the Baltimore region, the debate will be broadcast live at 9 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2), WBAL (Channel 11), WJZ (Channel 13) and MPT (Channel 22). On cable, debate coverage will begin at 8 p.m. on CSPAN, MSNBC and CNN, and at 9 p.m. on the Fox News Channel.


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