The Magazine


May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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AL GORE IS NO FOOL. He knows that education is on voters' minds and has been a political winner for Bill Clinton. He knows he has no track record as an education reformer. So on May 16, he seized an opportunity -- a college commencement address in a tiny Iowa town -- to stake out a forceful position on this contentious issue.

His timing was shrewd. No other candidate save former education secretary Lamar Alexander has had much to say on the topic. This placed Gore out front. Then within days, the administration unveiled its massive, draconian scheme to overhaul the federal role in K-12 education, which both boosted interest in the issue and -- remarkably -- made the veep look like a "good cop" by comparison.

No, Gore's seven points don't add up to a coherent plan. They're more like fine-sounding themes or goals and some nebulous proposals. They rely on a systematic blurring of the line between what a President Gore could have the federal government do and what he could only harangue states and communities to do for themselves.

That distinction makes education a tricky national issue for Republicans. They cannot elide it as easily as Gore. Their affection for the 10th Amendment and local control of schools leaves GOP office-seekers perplexed about how to tackle a nationwide concern without expanding Washington's role. This is a special problem in the primaries, where much of the Republican "base" thinks Uncle Sam should have nothing to do with the schools -- a fatal stance in the general election. Gore, though, has the good fortune to be a Democrat, and thus joins a long list of politicians who deftly erase the boundary between "national" and "federal." This intellectual dishonesty leads to policy promiscuity, but it also yields seductive speeches and happy audiences.

I wish I had a dollar for every focus group Gore's seven themes were tried out on before he shared them with the Graceland College class of '99. They touch all the bases: better and more professional teachers, universal access to both preschool and college, character and values, discipline and safety, computers, school accountability, smaller classes, parent involvement, "turning around" failing schools, and on and on.

It was a good speech, for Gore, and got lots of attention. Had he been running for prime minister of Britain or any other country with a unitary school system and parliamentary government, it might even have been termed an honest speech. Listeners would have understood that he was setting forth the policies of the government he hoped to lead and that, if he were elected, the education system would change in the stated ways.

In the American context, however, it was basically dishonest, because it was not moored in the reality of what a U.S. president can do. To put any of these proposals into operation from Washington would require congressional assent and budget authority -- and a vast expansion of Uncle Sam's involvement in the country's schools.

That prospect seems not to trouble the vice president. He called for widening the Family and Medical Leave Act to make employers excuse parents for all conferences with teachers. He contemplates new tax-exempt savings accounts "for job training, education, and lifelong learning." He wants Washington to give a $ 10,000 scholarship to anyone who agrees "to spend four-years teaching in a school that needs your help" provided they also "pass a rigorous exam."

Very shrewd. Gore responds to widespread anxiety about teachers' competence -- and the popularity of making them demonstrate their knowledge -- while offering more money to teachers, yet limits both test and reward to those who serve in needy, tough, urban schools. Along the way, he would have the federal government intrude as never before into decisions about what teachers should know and which schools need which teachers. But never mind.

Other vice presidential proposals are vaguer. It's impossible to determine whom he expects to do what to bring them about. Thus: "We should provide bonuses to all teachers in schools where students have made significant gains. . . . We need a renewed focus on discipline, character, the right values, and safety. . . . We should increase our commitment to after-school care. . . . We should provide incentives to create smaller high schools. . . . We need to make summer school much more widely available." And on and on.