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.

Those vague promises, however, are the good cop speaking. A few days later, education secretary Richard Riley unveiled the Clinton administration's plan to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Goals 2000 program. Congress last reworked these huge statutes just before the Republican victory of 1994, and at the time critics termed them a worrisome expansion of federal control over the nation's schools.

Well, hold onto your hat and lock your children up some place safe. The era of big government is back with a vengeance. So far as one can tell from Riley's remarks and Education Department press releases -- the hundreds of pages of fine print are not yet public -- we are looking at an epochal enlargement of federal control of U.S. schools. Not since the heyday of the federal courts' incursions into school management in the name of desegregation have we seen anything like this Potomac power grab.

But the lever this time is not enforcement of constitutional rights. It's the lure of federal dollars. The administration is saying that states and communities that want to keep getting their share of the $ 12 billion or so in school aid that flows each year from Washington must henceforth obey many more rules that flow from Washington. The operative phrases in the Department's 17-page handout are "require states" and "states must."

The new requirements are breathtaking in their audacity. In the name of "fairness," for example, Riley would require all the schools in a district to have "equivalent pupil-teacher ratios, their teachers [to] have equal qualifications, and the curriculum, instructional materials, range of courses and the condition of safety of school facilities all must be comparable." He doesn't mean "comparable" as in "able to be compared." He means identical, uniform, equal, unvarying.

In the name of "qualified" teachers, the administration would require every state to ensure that 95 percent of its instructors are "fully certified" -- that is, products of the teacher-education cartel -- leaving districts and charter schools even less leeway to hire other people who might do a better job.

In the name of a "stimulating, career-long learning environment for teachers," the administration would require every district to set aside 10 percent of its Title I funding for "professional development." In other words, take $ 800 million a year out of direct services to low income children and spend it instead on the motley array of prosperous hucksters, itinerant experts, and mediocre ed schools that dispense "in-service education."

In the name of orderly schools, the administration would "require states to hold school districts and schools accountable for having discipline policies that focus on prevention, are consistent and fair." Imagine the regulatory apparatus that will be needed to see whether 50 states have done this satisfactorily in 16,000 local districts and 85,000 public schools. But it's even more complicated, for the White House is sensitive to concerns that tough discipline will actually lead to troublesome kids' being kicked out of school. So yet another provision would require states "to ensure that schools have a plan to help students who are expelled or suspended continue to meet the challenging state standards." Think of it as the Bureau of High Standards for Bad Kids.

Were all this and more to happen, the U.S. secretary of education would become the national superintendent of schools. Reform-minded governors and mayors might as well fold their education tents. Advocates of education improvement via school diversity and competition would face a historic setback. Parents -- while they may find themselves required to become more "involved" with their children's schools -- will have ever less say in their kids' education. And Al Gore will be made a more honest man, for the country whose presidency he seeks will have an education system far more like the unitary, nationalized, government-run versions of other lands.

One would like to say that the education battle lines are being drawn in Washington, but it's doubtful the GOP will amount a coherent counterattack. Congressional leaders' initial response to the Clinton plan has been, "Yes, but." There is no sign of effective leadership on this issue on the Republican side of the aisle. After an initial flurry of attention, the country's energetic "education governors" seem to have surrendered the field. Although the "Super Ed-Flex" idea -- giving a handful of states greater freedom with their federal dollars in return for evidence of improved pupil achievement -- is attracting some interest on Capitol Hill, it is already being compromised with conditions, set-asides, and hold-harmless provisions that will render it practically meaningless.

Just as Gore is gambling that, when it comes to education, voters prefer action to inaction and concrete programs to quibbles about federalism, so are Clinton and Riley assuming that the country is ready for an activist government to take charge of the schools. Sixteen years after being declared a "nation at risk," the United States still provides a K-12 education that is perilously weak. The Democrats have decided that the public is weary of false starts and excuses and is prepared to let Washington run things, may be even to reward politicians who promise vigor. For their part -- to their great shame and likely political cost -- the Republicans still cannot explain what a better approach would be.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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