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Striving to be the education candidate

Gore and Bush tout school proposals, but educators and experts agree presidents have little say at the local level.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


Days after wrapping up the Republican nomination for president, George W. Bush flew to Orlando and spoke to cheering students in Colonial High School's gym.

"I don't want to be the federal superintendent of public schools," Bush said before pitching his education proposals. "If you're interested in somebody who wants to federalize education, you're looking at the wrong man."

But in the two months since the Texas governor's last visit to Florida, both Bush and Al Gore have been campaigning as though they were running for the local school board.

Education has been the dominant issue for both men, from photo opportunities at schools from Florida to California to regular e-mails that give failing grades to each other's proposals.

Yet educators and policy experts agree that the president has little control over the nation's classrooms.

"It's not even a blip on my radar screen," Pasco County School Superintendent John Long said. "With all due respect to Vice President Gore and Mr. Bush, as a school superintendent I don't pay much attention to presidential candidates when they talk about education."

Last week, though, both candidates were at it again even as many families were more focused on the end of school and the start of summer vacation than on education policy.

Bush toured a school in Ohio on Wednesday and read to students at another school in Michigan. Friday night, the Texas governor spoke at a high school graduation on a football field outside Austin.

Gore spent Friday at the Cordova School in Memphis, participating in kindergarten field day and joining a nature walk with second-graders on his sixth "school day." The day before in Nashville, the vice president unveiled a proposal to expand after-school programs and offer a new tax credit to help parents cover the cost of sending their children to them.

"We could be using those hours to lift up our children and give them the education and skills they need to succeed," the Democrat said in a statement. "In this new world economy, we can't afford not to."

But public schools in Florida and elsewhere can't afford to rely on Washington for money for education.

The federal government accounts for just 7 percent of the spending on public education nationwide. In Florida, it's only slightly more.

The state received $1.3-billion in federal money for public schools in 1998-99, pocket change compared to the $15-billion in state and local dollars during the same period. The federal portion represented just 8.7 percent of public school spending.

The largest pot of federal money for public education is the so-called Title I program, a 35-year-old effort to direct additional dollars into schools with large numbers of children from low-income families. But Florida spends more money on its schools than the federal government spends nationwide on Title I schools.

Even in Title I schools, the federal dollars account for a small portion of the budget.

Gore visited Tampa's Van Buren Middle School last month, talked with parents and students in the after-school program and promoted a dramatic expansion of such efforts nationwide. But even at Van Buren, the after-school program served only about half of the 800 students.

More than $400,000 in Title I money also was spent to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and to buy library books and computers. But that federal money represents just 10 percent of Van Buren's overall budget.

While some parents praised the Hillsborough school's after-school program as Gore shook hands, others were so skeptical about the Democrat's plans to expand such programs to virtually every school that they declined to speak for publication.

"The most important issue in this presidential election should be that every community is unique, even in a county such as ours," Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Earl Lennard said last week. "What's needed at Van Buren may not be the same thing that is needed in another school in Hillsborough or in another school in New York or Des Moines or El Paso."

Other high-profile federal education programs are just as modest when compared to efforts by state and local governments.

Gore pledges to expand the Clinton administration's effort to provide federal money to hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes in the early grades. Florida received nearly $52-million from that program this year to hire 1,333 new teachers, the White House says. But the number was probably less; 18 percent of the money was earmarked for administrative services and training.

Even if all 1,333 teachers were hired with federal money, Florida hires nearly three times that many just from out of state every year, the state Department of Education estimates. Florida Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said the federal money replaces the money school districts were going to spend to hire teachers anyway.

"It's bragging rights," Gallagher, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, said of the Clinton administration's goal of hiring 100,000 new teachers with federal dollars.

Now Gore vows to recruit 1-million new teachers over the next decade.

Gore or Bush would not be the first president to shine the spotlight on education, of course.

Bush's father, George Bush, called himself the education president and achieved mixed results. President Clinton has his initiative to hire teachers and has pitched a potpourri of other changes.

But there is a practical reason why education is in the forefront this campaign season and no one hears Republicans talking anymore about abolishing the U.S. Department of Education.

The issue is No. 1 in national opinion polls. Whether they are running for the state legislature or for president, candidates are talking about education.

"I think you're compelled to talk about it," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who is leading the Florida campaign for his older brother. "But to be directly involved in implementing education policy, it's difficult. It may be easier for Gore. He may actually think he might qualify as principal for all the kids. But I think George recognizes there must be a limited federal role."

But the role would be greater than Washington plays now in education.

While Bush would give states more discretion to spend federal education money, there still would be strings attached. He also would require states to test students annually in math and reading from the third to the eighth grades. Bush says the states, not the federal government, would design the tests.

Similarly, Bush would spend an extra $400-million a year on teacher training and recruitment in states that adopt tougher standards for teachers. And he would offer $5-billion over five years in an effort to ensure every child can read by the third grade. States that tap into the money, however, would be required to meet new rules on testing, curriculum and teacher training. The Republican also would create a federal tuition voucher system similar to Florida's. Low-performing Title 1 schools would lose their federal money, which would go to the students who could use it to help pay for private school tuition.

"What's implicit in that proposal is when you talk about accountability, somebody has to be the enforcer and Bush is putting the federal government in that role," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. "It certainly increases the federal role in education."

The reach and cost of Bush's proposals, $5.5-billion over five years, is modest compared with Gore's laundry list.

Over 10 years, the vice president would spend $115-billion of the budget surplus to dramatically expand programs from preschool to after-school. In between, he would provide money for building schools by using federal money to pay for interest on bonds for new construction, and for recruiting 1-million more teachers.

"I've been to schools where the classrooms are so full, and the teachers are so overburdened, students are reluctant to take the teacher's time -- even if they don't understand the material -- because they feel guilty adding to the obviously crushing burden on their teacher," Gore said in a speech to the teachers union in Michigan earlier this month.

But with all of the money would come plenty of new federal requirements.

Gore would force schools to end social promotion, test new teachers in their subject areas, allow principals to hire teachers without regard to seniority and enable students in poorly performing schools to transfer to other public schools.

John Schnur, a Gore campaign policy adviser and former White House aide on elementary and secondary school policy, said the timing is right for an expansion of the federal government's role in education. He said most states, including Florida, have adopted performance-based standards that make politicians from both political parties more comfortable with sending money to schools.

And the federal budget surplus, Schnur said, makes that money available.

"We need to make education, with state and local leadership, a real national priority," he said.

But even some of Gore's natural allies are skeptical.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he understands why Bush and Gore feel compelled to talk so much about education. He's just not sure how much help could or should come from the White House.

"Washington is really not a major player," Moore said. "How many policy decisions do you want to go to people who only contribute about 8 percent of the money?"

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