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Bush, Gore Campaigns Deliberate Plans to Improve Public Education

By Richard Lee Colvin
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- From now until Election Day, George W. Bush and Al Gore will talk so much about public education that it might seem like they’re running for superintendent of schools rather than president of the United States.

They’ll sound the same, using education buzzwords such as “accountability” and “high standards.” But make no mistake, they are vastly different. And their differences put them on opposite sides of one of the central debates among education policy experts.

Simply put, the question is whether resources -- financial and otherwise -- or resolve make the biggest contribution to educational outcomes. A recent Rand Corp. analysis of national test scores found, not surprisingly, that both are essential.

But the stark differences between the candidates can be seen in the cures they’d recommend for the lowest-performing schools -- places where the hope of learning often ends in failure.

Bush, the Republican presidential nominee now on tour touting his education plan, would get tough. If after three years test scores hadn’t improved at a failing school, federal dollars for the disadvantaged that had gone to the school would be turned over directly to parents. And they could transfer to another public school, taking the money with them, or use the money for tutoring or private school tuition. In other words, vouchers.

Bush’s camp plays down the voucher aspect of the proposal, saying it’s only one of several options states could make available to parents.

Conversely, Gore would provide failing public schools with more resources. If outside experts and retraining and after-school classes didn’t do the trick in three years, the school would be shut down and reopened with new teachers and administrators. Members of the new regime would get one-time bonuses of as much as $20,000 to motivate them .

“This is a serious debate between two very different philosophies about how to improve schools all across America,” said Jon Schnur, a former White House policy expert who is advising the Democratic presidential nominee on education issues. “Gore’s plan insists on high standards and accountability but then makes important investments in getting kids and schools and teachers the help they need.”

Both candidates say they would leave the details of such policies up to state and local discretion. But both say that the federal government must demand better results for the $14 billion a year it spends on education, $8 billion of it on a program known as Title I.

The goal of that program is to help disadvantaged children catch up.

Bush argues that schools receiving public funding for disadvantaged students are cheating their children out of an education and wasting taxpayers’ money.

“In return for federal help, there must be strong accountability measures,” Bush told a meeting of state legislators recently. “And if we find that the federal government is subsidizing schools that don’t work, we must give parents another path to take.”

As governor, Bush used a similar mixture of threats and pressure to expose failing schools in Texas. There, every school is rated based on test scores, with attendance and dropout rates factored in. Schools that don’t make the grade are labeled unsatisfactory.