Ask political strategists about the presidential race, and you'll hear that Al Gore has an edge over George W. Bush on the big domestic issues. A majority of voters agree with Gore that tax cuts should be modest and the budget surplus should go to save Social Security and Medicare, that health coverage should be expanded and women should retain their right to abortion. But on at least one traditional piece of Democratic turf, Bush is sure he can beat Gore. Public education "is a bright and dividing line in this campaign," Bush said repeatedly last week. He called it "a defining issue" and (in case anyone missed the point) "a deciding issue." According to a new survey by the bipartisan Battleground Poll, Bush does about as well on the issue as Gore--44% said the Vice President would "do a better job" on education, and 42% gave the nod to Bush--erasing the usual Democratic advantage.
Education, of course, is the Texas Governor's policy home page--the place where the reformer really does have results, where he seems to speak from his heart and mind, not an invisible set of cue cards. Public schools in Texas have improved dramatically on Bush's watch. And although the structural reforms that made it happen were in place when Bush took office, he has built on them year after year. Black and Latino children have made galloping gains in math and reading scores during his years in office, narrowing the achievement gap that bedevils school systems around the country. Because of that, Bush has a chance to argue that he is both competent and compassionate--a message that was all but lost in the grim heat of his primary battles with John McCain.
Bush and his strategists also believe education gives them an opportunity to define Gore as a special-interest coddler, a roadblock to reform. On Friday, Bush's campaign unveiled the first TV commercial of the Bush-Gore contest, an education-reform spot running in Illinois and reaching parts of Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. "Gore and Clinton had eight years, but they've failed," the ad says. "As President, George W. Bush will challenge the status quo with a crusade to improve education." In response, Gore put up an ad pointing out that reading scores "are going up across America," styling himself a champion of "revolutionary improvements to our schools" and attacking Bush for attacking him.
Bush's charges may sound like workaday campaign rhetoric, but he has a point. He has a plan for comprehensive school reform--flexibility and local control coupled with high standards and consequences for failure--and Gore, so far, does not. Gore gets part of the equation right--he backs statewide standards and testing--but comes up short on the issue of holding schools accountable for student performance. During his time as Vice President, the Education Department has done little to reward schools that flourish and nothing to sanction schools that persistently fail. And Gore remains fuzzy on the subject today. He says failing schools "should be shut down fairly and fast," but his campaign proposals don't spell out how he would do that as President. "Gore has been very, very soft on school accountability," says Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a center-left school-reform group. "He doesn't set consequences for schools that fail. I'm a black Democrat," she adds, "so it's frightening for me to see Bush more concerned about minority achievement than Gore."