“Bush, Clinton, and Nov. 3”

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

By Stan Karp

Most teachers have a lot of experience in making the best of a bad situation. They’ll need it this November when they go to vote.

Differences between the two major candidates, particularly on private school voucher plans, make the election’s outcome important to anyone concerned about the immediate future of public education. But neither candidate is proposing the dramatic increases in resources or the fundamental changes needed to really make good on over a decade of school reform promises. Further, in some important areas such as national standards and testing, there are strong similarities between the two.

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and most other education groups have strongly endorsed Bill Clinton. But enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate has at least as much to do with the pounding public education has taken during the Reagan/Bush era as it does with Clinton’s own proposals. If the Arkansas governor did nothing but put down the hatchet that Bush has used to hack away at federal education spending (down almost 40% since 1980) and at support for public schools in general, he’d look good by comparison.

Superficially, at least, education policy has received more attention than usual in the 1992 campaign. Both candidates have talked about school choice, job training, college financial aid, and national curriculum and testing efforts. At the same time, it is difficult to see through the haze of campaign rhetoric to make definitive statements about how these campaign pronouncements might translate into actual policy. Keeping in mind that what candidates say and what presidents do often have little in common, here’s a summary of their positions and records on major education issues:

School Choice

Under the slogan of “choice,” Bush has mounted the most sustained attack on public education in recent history. For the President and his advisors, “choice” means fundamentally weakening the government’s support for public schools in favor of promoting privatization. (According to Bush, “any school that serves the public” is a public school.)

The President’s two major choice initiatives are “America 2000” and his “G.I. Bill for Children.” America 2000 is a corporate-funded effort to create “break-the-mold schools for the 21st century.” It’s designed to develop an elite string of model schools shaped by corporate planners.

Along with existing private institutions, the new models could create a base for further privatization schemes. More than 2,500 communities have been organized into a growing America 2000 network that holds satellite meetings with Education Secretary Lamar Alexander to shape local reform.

America 2000 is also the incubator for businessman Chris Whittle’s plans to open a chain of 200 private schools by 1996.

Under Alexander and former Xerox CEO David Kearns, Bush’s Department of Education is becoming the research-and-development arm of a new corporate-educational complex, subsidized and nourished by “choice” experiments. (Alexander described the recent America 2000 grant recipients as “sort of the defense contractors of the school industry.”) Millions of dollars in contracts and development grants are being channeled to a small group of interconnected planners and policymakers like former administration officials Chester Finn and William Bennett, and Alexander’s ex-business partner, Whittle.)

The “G.I. Bill for Children” is a voucher plan that if passed, would give qualifying families $1,000 to spend on educational programs of their choosing, public or private. By itself, that’s not enough to cover most private tuition fees, but combined with other resources, the vouchers might let some families buy their way out of public schools, and vouchers would provide a subsidy for those already paying private and parochial tuition. The actual costs of providing every potentially eligible student with the $1,000 voucher would be more than $30 billion, but Bush’s program proposes allocating less than 2% of that.

Clearly, the primary motives are ideological.

To the extent that Bush’s choice plans are implemented, public education will suffer. Federal funds will flow away from public schools to private and religious institutions that practice varying degrees of discrimination and exclusivity. Educational inequality will grow as market-driven choice plans do for schooling what supply-side economic and tax policies have done for the distribution of wealth.

Clinton says he’s opposed to choice plans that make public funds available to private schools. But the depth of his opposition is questionable on several counts.

Only two years ago, when candidate Clinton was still defining his appeal as a “new kind of Democrat,” he wrote to Wisconsin legislator Polly Williams that he was “fascinated” by her plan to use state funds to subsidize private school tuition for inner-city students in Milwaukee. He suggested her plan was “visionary” and he was “concerned that the traditional Democratic Party establishment has not given you more encouragement.” Whether Clinton simply changed his mind, or cynically traded in his inclinations for the weighty currency of NEA/AFT endorsements, it seems that the Arkansas governor’s relatively better position on school choice is just that — relative.

Clinton remains a champion of choice within public schools, which is better than Bush’s privatizing schemes, but still problematic (see article by Ann Bastian on page 3). As governor, Clinton implemented the nation’s second statewide choice plan, asserting, “Choice will encourage districts to do better. Competition will improve quality.”

College Financing

Unde al college aid programs have continued to move away from grants to loan plans that saddle recipients with large debts upon graduation. This year, Bush opposed Congressional efforts to expand Pell Grants, the largest federal scholarship program. He also opposed efforts to reduce loan costs by instituting “direct” federal loan programs that by-pass banks and lending institutions and make loans directly to students. Bush has made campaign references to something called “Lifetime Education and Training Accounts” which would allow individuals to borrow up to $25,000 for post-secondary education, but he has not moved beyond campaign rhetoric to a detailed proposal.

One of Clinton’s signature proposals is his plan to create a National Service Trust Fund, which would allow anyone, regardless of income, to borrow funds for college and graduate school. After college, the loans would be repaid through a payroll deduction as a percentage of income or through two years of low-paid community service. (Interestingly, teaching is included as one of these low-paying options.) While Clinton expects this fund to completely replace the current federal student loan program, details have not been worked out — which makes it impossible at this point to seriously evaluate the pros and cons of the fund. He estimates the fund would cost about $8 billion a year, which could come out of the $60 billion education budget Clinton proposes to move federal school spending back to pre-Reagan levels.

Job Training

Here, Bush has proposed yet another voucher plan. He would give jobless workers $3,000 to spend on educational programs for retraining at trade schools and colleges. Many of these vouchers would be reserved for workers displaced by defense cutbacks. And in a somewhat contradictory initiative, Bush proposes doubling the number of high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps units, presumably to direct young people to military careers. He also proposes enlisting another one million young people in the National Youth Apprenticeship Program, adding 30,000 slots to the Job Corps program, and opening 20 new Youth Training Corps centers, again giving “downsized” military personnel preferential treatment. In what has become a standard shell game for his campaign, the President proposes funding these efforts by cutting other, as yet unspecified, domestic programs.

Clinton proposes a substantial expansion of career education and apprenticeship programs. In fact, they’re a central feature of his economic policy. As a model, he cites Germany, where up to two-thirds of all high school students are channeled toward three-year corporate apprenticeship programs. Clinton would require all employers with more than 50 employees to spend 1.5% of their payrolls on training programs or put an equivalent amount into a general fund for such efforts. His apprenticeship program would be about five times larger than the one proposed by Bush.

The selling points for these programs are that they would provide career training for the 75% of all students who don’t go to college, while providing business with the technologically-trained workers they say they will need. But their success depends on Clinton’s highly dubious economic plans and “industrial policies” to create well-paying, high-tech jobs instead of the low-paying, non-union, service-sector jobs the economy generated most in the 1980s.

Moreover, such apprenticeship/career training programs are likely to reinforce the insidious tracking system by which young people are channelled towards limited educational and class horizons at ever-younger ages.

Curriculum and Testing

Clinton and Bush both support development of national curriculum standards and testing programs. They both played leading roles in formulating the six education goals at the 1989 Education Summit that have since guided national initiatives. (See Viewpoint, page 18.) While these goals include some high-minded objectives like preparing every child to start school, ridding all schools of drugs and violence, and increasing the high school graduation rate to 90%, they are empty promises in the absence of the funding or programs needed to realize them.

Where the six goals have had real impact is in spurring the effort to create “new world standards” in five basic curriculum areas — English, math, science, history, and geography — along with new tests which would be given in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. The goals contain no mention of multicultural diversity or funding equity and tend to push national policy in familiar, unproductive directions. (Between 1960 and 1989, for example, revenue for testing companies rose 150% — 10 times more than K-12 enrollment — without any demonstrable educational benefits.) National standards and testing requirements will also keep school reform in the hands of governors and corporate managers instead of local communities.

Early Childhood

In 1988 Bush campaigned on a promise to fully fund Head Start. He never came close. The $600 million Head Start increase Bush put into his re-election year budget is $3 billion short of the target set in the 1990 legislation that reauthorized the program.

Only 30% of eligible 3-to-5-year-olds are being served. Just this past summer, in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, the administration allowed 95% of all Head Start centers to close for the summer for lack of funds. More generally, child poverty has risen 11% in the Reagan/Bush era.

Clinton is also campaigning on a promise to provide full funding for Head Start. In Arkansas, the Governor did expand early childhood programs and instituted a statewide parent education program that sends counselors into poor areas to help improve home learning environments.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, has been a prominent Clinton supporter and advisor.

Educational Leadership

Bush anointed himself the Education President in a cynically calculated effort to manufacture a useful domestic issue (i.e. the “vision thing”). By making private school choice his “flagship” issue, Bush has helped lay the groundwork for massive disinvestment in the country’s most inclusive and potentially important democratic institution. Though many people remain confused by the details and the implications, polls now show that over 70% of those surveyed express support for a voucher system that includes public, parochial, and private schools. This is a dramatic increase over previous periods and suggests that the legacy of Bush’s “education presidency” could be the breakup and ultimate demise of the system of public schooling.

Clinton calls education, “the issue that I know most and care most about.” There is no doubt that Clinton is conversant, in a way that Bush is not, with the jargon and specifics of school reform. (While Bush has trouble understanding the definition of a public school, Clinton can talk coherently about school restructuring, assessment research, and school-site leadership.) In Arkansas, Clinton significantly increased school spending, reduced class size, and raised teacher pay, although he relied largely on regressive sales taxes to fund these changes. There is also a repressive streak running through his record. He has supported competency testing for teachers, denial of driver’s licenses to dropouts, and fines for parents who miss school conferences or permit truancy.

In areas such as national tests and standards, there is a convergence between the policies of Bush and Clinton. In other areas such as college financing, Clinton’s proposals are vague. On the other hand, Clinton’s opposition to private school voucher schemes and his support for increased educational spending clearly distinguish him from Bush, whose policies seem designed to push public schools off a cliff.

For those concerned about education, the prospect of putting an end to the Reagan/ Bush era is too appealing to resist pulling the lever next to Clinton’s name on Election Day. But activists voting with their eyes open for candidate Clinton on Nov. 3 should be ready to continue the campaign for true education reform on Nov. 4.

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F. K. High School in Paterson, N.J.