The Party balance in Congress is on the line, there is dissent among the White House staff...and what does the President spend the week obsessing about? The school-board election in his hometown.
President Bartlet's manic attention to local school politics on a recent episode of NBC-TV's hit show The West Wing seems especially appropriate in the final days of this real-life American campaign. Anyone hearing George W. Bush and Al Gore might think that the big vote we're casting next week is really for superintendent in chief.
Listen as Bush invokes his "crusade" to improve schools and Gore calls for an education "revolution," and it's hard to believe that just 45 years ago the Federal Government didn't spend a dime on K-12 education. Even now, Washington provides only about 7% of public school spending. Yet this year Bush and Gore--while rooted in different philosophies--have come up with thoughtful, detailed plans to tackle our most pressing educational challenges: schools that repeatedly fail, the opportunity for more early-childhood learning, the shortage of qualified teachers, the high cost of college tuition. And voters in 18 states will decide on ballot initiatives that concern such issues as vouchers and bilingual teaching. Gore is right when he says, "Education is on the ballot this November."
So who's got the better program? For much of the campaign, Bush had neutralized the traditional Democratic advantage on education, boasting of a Texas record that enabled him to say that he, not Gore, knows what works. Last week a Rand Corp. study called parts of Bush's record into question, noting that many of Texas' touted gains may have been the result of widespread test cramming, not actual learning. But Bush stands by his record (a Rand study earlier this year showed that by several measures Texas leads the nation) and pledges to enact the Texas testing and accountability program on a national scale. Bush also proposes a $26.6 billion increase in education spending over 10 years--a dramatic departure for a Republican.
Gore would impose less testing than Bush does, and promises far more in new spending: $115 billion. This fundamental difference--do you stress accountability or investment?--is nowhere clearer than in how the candidates propose to handle what is arguably the nation's biggest problem: the more than 7,000 schools that year after year have failed to educate students.
A President Bush would tell failing schools that enough is enough: If you can't do the job, we'll give your federal dollars to parents to help them send their kids to a better school. A President Gore would keep trying: bring in a team of specialists, pump money into reform, and if all else fails, shut the place down and start over with a new principal and new teachers.
To see the Bush plan in action, consider the story of Spencer Bibbs Elementary in Pensacola, Fla. Meant to be a magnet school for science and technology, Spencer Bibbs instead posted abysmal test scores that landed it on the state's worst-performing list two years in a row. During the 1998-99 school year, just 26% of its students scored at the minimum-competency level of the state's reading exam.