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Schools top the election agenda

UNITED STATES

FOR a party that has traditionally sought to keep the government out of the business of running schools it was an odd way to kick off a presidential campaign.

Yet on the first night of the Republican National Convention, the wife of the party's nominee George W Bush stood at the podium while 20 Texan schoolchildren sat politely at desks, their hands folded, and read the multiplication tables.

Then Laura Bush - a former librarian and teacher - told delegates that education was the single most important issue in the autumn elections. She said she herself would focus on issues such as reading and early childhood development.

While the two major political parties still differ on education, they agree on one thing: it is foremost in the minds of voters, and therefore will feature prominently in the presidential race.

This is despite the fact that the federal government has little impact on school policies, and provides less than 10 per cent of total funding for local primary and secondary education. Most decisions about education are taken by local school boards.

The parties' platforms were passed at the Republican national convention a fortnight ago and the Democrat conventon this week and closely tied in with the candidates' positions.

The Democrats favour voluntary national standardised testing for 10-year-olds in reading and 12-year-olds in maths; streamlined procedures to remove bad teachers; smaller class sizes; and more money to rebuild or replace ageing and overcrowded schools.

The Republicans want to turn the budgets from existing federal educational programmes into grants that local schools can use however they want; and to speed up the process of excluding disruptive students.

The biggest difference between the parties' concerns is over the issue of government vouchers which parents can use to buy private school tuition.

The Republicans favour them, although their candidate, Governor Bush, prefers that they be limited to students at low-performing schools.

The Democrats, who enjoy the support of the two enormous teachers' unions, adamantly oppose vouchers, although their candidate for vice president, Joseph Lieberman, supports a limited voucher scheme in low-income, inner-city neighbourhoods.

The relatively narrow gap between the parties is odd for an issue that both supposedly expect to be the hottest topic on the campaign trail.

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