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Technophile Gore got back to basics

If education is a priority for Al Gore, it hasn't always been so. And he had to overcome

[AP photo]
Vice President Al Gore browses in a Sarasota bookstore Monday as he takes a break from preparing for Wednesday's presidential debate.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000


The night Al Gore visited his home in Holt, Mich., kindergarten teacher Jay Strong expected a few minutes of polite conversation and photo ops.

But before Gore turned in for the night (he slept in a double bed in Strong's daughter's bedroom), the vice president chatted into the early morning with the Strong family.

They talked schools. Teacher pay. Vouchers. Professional development. Standards. Everything.

"He talked to my 10-year-old son about school bullies for a while," Strong said of the visit in May. "He was sounding him out on school safety and violence, but they were just talking."

The next morning, Gore was out the door before 7. He headed to the nearby Holt High School where Strong's wife, Margo, teaches. The vice president taught a few classes, schmoozed with teachers and students, and ate pizza and fries in the cafeteria. He spent hours at the school in the suburb south of Lansing.

"I was really surprised by his level of interest in all sorts of little things," Strong said. "I thought he'd just come in, make a speech and leave."

Strong and others got the distinct impression that education is where it's at for Gore.

Judging by Gore's record in Congress, that hasn't always been the case.

As a congressman and senator, Gore earned high ratings from the National Education Association for his voting record. Expand math and reading programs for disadvantaged children? Rep. Gore voted yes. School vouchers? Sen. Gore voted no.

However, education was not his forte. Gore did not serve on any education committees. He offered few proposals. He was the environmentalist, the technology geek, the arms control expert, not the education guy.

Critics say Gore has had little interest in, and even less experience with, education until polls showed that a school bus would be an essential prop on the road to the White House.

"I guess it's not surprising that he has such an interest now; education is such a big issue among voters," said Charles R. Hokanson, a researcher at the conservative Fordham Foundation who has studied the presidential candidates' education records. "But he has not exactly been a leader in education reform."

How are voters to judge Gore's education record?

"For ill or for good, I think he has to stand on the record of this administration over the last eight years," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "That's where you have to look. He didn't just discover education as an issue."

Gore's record in Congress

In his campaign speeches and on his Web site, Gore calls for "revolutionary change" in the nation's public schools. The site touts his record in Congress.

What did he do in the House and Senate? Gore sponsored the Neighborhood Schools Improvement Act and the Star Program, which helped schools set up telecommunications networks for distance learning. Not exactly a revolution in the making.

Gore calls particular attention to his support for the creation of the Department of Education in 1979. Gore co-sponsored the measure. It was quite controversial at the time.

Expanding the federal role in education was seen as dangerous and misguided. Critics warned that Washington would take over control of schools. It remained controversial for years, as Republican presidential candidates continued to call for the end of the Education Department.

That is, until this year. George W. Bush decided the symbolism of shutting down the Education Department would hurt him. Voters want a president who will do something to help the nation's schools. Forget the fact that the federal government still contributes only about 8 percent of school budgets.

This year, the only questions regarding an expanded federal role in education are, how much and how far? Both Bush and Gore want to provide more money and direction for our nation's schools. Not surprisingly, Gore wants to go further, proposing to spend $115-billion over 10 years.

As vice president, Gore developed a more hands-on approach regarding education. Those who know him say he has a genuine passion for, and knowledge of, school issues.

Gore education policy adviser William Galston pointed to the Family Re-Union Conference that Gore and his wife, Tipper, first led in 1992. The idea was to hold lengthy discussions on issues facing American families. Education has topped the agenda.

"This is something they do every year," said Galston, director for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. "This is not a new-found interest. He's constantly thinking through these issues."

Two years into the first Clinton-Gore term, Gore sat down with Secretary of Education Richard Riley to talk about a plan to get the nation's schools wired to the Internet.

A noted technophile, Gore loved the idea of wiring the nation's classrooms, especially impoverished schools in danger of falling further behind without the easy flow of digital information.

But there was a downside. Costs of the so-called "e-rate" would be paid by telecommunications companies, which were expected to pass the costs on to consumers.

"The Republicans were calling it the "Gore tax,' " Riley recalled during a recent visit to St. Petersburg. "He was taking a beating."

Gore asked a few questions, worked through the details. "Then," Riley said, "the vice president said, "It's the right thing to do. I'm for it.' And that was it. He knew it was a good idea. He knew why it was a good idea."

"Everyone knows about Al Gore's interest in technology," said Levine at Columbia University's Teachers College. "At some point he realized technology is not going to get going if we don't have an educated work force."

The readiness question

Not long ago researchers asked an interesting but simple question. Given the achievement gap among minority 12th-graders, is it possible to know how much of the gap is attributable to what goes on in the classroom, and how much is due to a lack of readiness entering school?

Gore adviser William Galston described the study in a recent interview to illustrate how Gore's proposals take shape.

The researchers found that more than half the gap might be attributed to a lack of readiness.

"If you're interested in closing that achievement gap in high school, what do you do?" Galston said. "Al Gore decided to look at the other end: the readiness question." Gore has proposed a 10-year plan to spend $50-billion making preschool universally available.

"Revolution is in the eye of the beholder, but when the vice president put that proposal on the table, that's a big deal,' Galston said. "It's a dramatic change in the status quo."

Some other Gore proposals are not particularly bold in concept but might be significant in their execution. Hiring lots of new teachers -- a priority of Clinton-Gore and now of Gore -- falls into that category.

High-growth states like Florida have been contending with a teacher shortage for years. Now it's seen as a national problem. Clinton and Gore proposed a significant federal role in the solution: 100,000 new teachers nationwide to help reduce class size. They haven't gotten it yet, but Congress funded what Gore calls a "down payment": $1.2-billion in 1999 for 30,000 new teachers nationwide.

Pinellas County got $2.3-million of the class-size-reduction money in 1999-2000.

One of the things Pinellas did with the money was hire Eileen Stull to teach second grade at Shore Acres Elementary. The school used to have four crowded second-grade classes. Now, with Stull, it has added a fifth second-grade class.

"Before I got hired, they had 28 or 29 in the second-grade classes; that's really too many at one time," said Stull, who was hired last school year. "Now we've all got 21 or so. That makes a big difference."

"It didn't solve the whole problem, but it helps," said Sandy Ramos, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Pasco County schools, which hired 18 new teachers last year with more than $900,000 in federal class-size reduction money.

Florida got $51.8-million in federal dollars to hire and train teachers in 1999-2000.

Gore is proposing to finish the job of hiring 100,000 teachers in the near future.

Bob Chase, president of the nation's largest teachers' union, agrees that, no, there's nothing particularly revolutionary about hiring more teachers. The same goes for expanding Head Start and preschool, increasing teacher salaries, and building more schools.

But Chase says if Gore could bring the power of the federal government to bear on these issues, and make it work, that would be a bold step forward.

"These are common sense things -- things we know that work," said Chase, president of the NEA. "The revolutionary part is making it work, actually making it happen."

* * *

COMING WEDNESDAY: A look at George W. Bush's record on education.

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