With education the voters’ top concern in the presidential race, both candidates have been working hard to give one another low marks on the issue. Al Gore blasts George W. Bush as a bad-for-the-commonweal conservative for backing vouchers to send low-income students to private schools, while Bush scorns Gore as a big-government liberal for backing expanded federal education spending.
For the most part, the press has stereotyped the Gore and Bush education agendas in the same way that the candidates have caricatured one another: government-reliant Democrat versus market-friendly Republican. A close look at the candidates’ education platforms, however, reveals a different reality: The Republican candidate is displaying tendencies of an old-style Democrat, and in several instances the Democratic candidate could pass for a Reagan Republican.
Take Gore’s stance on the teaching profession. Though the nation’s powerful teachers unions are working for the Democratic candidate, he has proposed reforms—tests for new teachers, simplified systems of firing bad apples, the abolition of tenure-for-life, performance-based pay—that are tougher than Bush’s. Gore has urged that every public school be given the right to hire teachers independently, a step that could erode collective bargaining itself.
Gore also has confounded the conventional wisdom on school choice. Much is made of Bush’s advocacy of vouchers. But in an April speech delivered in Bush’s home state, Gore approvingly envisioned a future when every public school becomes a quasi-independent “charter” school that would have to “compete for students.” If one thinks of publicly financed school choice as a continuum—with the majority of today’s students having no choice and those armed with private-school vouchers having the most choice—Gore’s universal charter-school plan puts him a lot closer to Bush on the issue than to the status quo.
Bush, like Gore, is proposing a significantly larger federal presence in education. He has sought to play to conservative voters by declaring the importance of “local control.” But his platform includes sweeping new federal initiatives and mandates to train teachers, teach kids to read, expand the use of technology in classrooms, publish report cards, enlarge the National Assessment of Educational Progress, create more charter schools and reward educators who raise student test scores, a move that could easily end up establishing implicit if not explicit federal student performance standards. While Bob Dole, the Republican Party’s presidential standard-bearer four years ago, vowed to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, Bush is proposing to expand its $38-billion budget by about $5 billion annually—not as much Gore’s proposed $11-billion-a-year increase but a big chunk of change nonetheless.
The common ground between the Bush and Gore agendas extends to other parts of the school-reform landscape as well. Both, for instance, make preschool a major priority. Gore would effectively add a year to public education by building a universal, publicly funded preschool system; Bush would restructure the $5.3-billion federal Head Start program to stress the teaching of pre-reading and pre-math skills. Both would tighten accountability on local educators by establishing grants for schools that ratchet up student achievement and by taking punitive steps against schools that don’t perform.
Of course, much of Bush’s new, more-activist Republican stance on education can be traced to the reform ideas his father touted in the White House, and Gore is following Bill Clinton’s lead in embracing more choice and competition in public education.
What does the candidates’ scrambling of the traditional Democrat and Republican education agendas mean for students? The short-term answer depends on the results of this fall’s congressional races. Wanting to deny Clinton a “victory” on school reform, the Republican-controlled Congress has blocked several Clinton-sponsored school initiatives that both Gore and Bush have included in their education platforms. Gore is going to need at least one chamber of Congress under the control of his own party to have a shot of breaking the Clinton-era legislative gridlock on school reform, and the same is true of Bush.
But the long-term significance of the candidates’ surprising stances is clear: The reforms—Gore’s radical reshaping of the teaching profession and his advocacy of universal public school choice, and Bush’s enthusiasm for performance rewards and for expanding a national testing system that’s likely to encourage national standards—are very likely to become a reality. In short, regardless of who wins, the presidential race presages major change in public education.
Thomas Toch is a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution and a Contributing Editor at U.S. News & World Report.