Clinton rips into vouchers

13th September 1996 at 01:00
UNITED STATES. Jon Marcus reports on the President's response to the right-wing schools policy put forward by Bob Dole, his Republican challenger. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole knows what is wrong with education in America: the teachers. And he is not afraid to say so, probably because the teachers' unions firmly support President Bill Clinton.

For his part, Mr Clinton opposes Mr Dole's central idea of giving vouchers to parents so they can send their children to parochial or private schools rather than their local public schools - something that polls have shown is supported by a growing number of Americans.

Education has become one of the few issues on which Mr Dole and Mr Clinton are at opposite extremes in an election campaign otherwise characterised by more agreement than discord.

It is a difference of opinion that will have more of an effect on votes than on policy: American schools are controlled almost entirely at the local level or by the states, and the federal government has little real impact on education.

Mr Dole, who has two conservative former education secretaries, Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett, among his closest advisers, wants to give tax credits and what he calls "opportunity scholarships" to parents who send their children to private or religious schools instead of public schools. The plan would provide up to $1,500 (Pounds 1,000) per child per year and cost up to $5 billion (Pounds 3.3bn) annually.

"It's pretty clear that Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander are pushing the Reagan agenda, which includes such things as privatisation and vouchers," said Gerald Bracey, editor of a national education newsletter and director of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, a nonpartisan umbrella group of 30 major education associations.

A survey of 1,200 Americans last year by the Centre for Education Reform found that 60 per cent of parents with children in public schools would send them to private schools if they could afford it. A poll conducted this year by the Gallup organisation found less support - about 40 per cent of those questioned. Still, that was up considerably from 1993, when Gallup reported that only 25 percent supported the idea.

But Mr Clinton and the teachers' unions say such a plan would skim off the top students and the most involved parents, leaving other students behind to fend for themselves in decaying public schools. They do, however, support allowing parents to choose between neighbouring public schools as a way of encouraging competition and forcing poor schools to improve or lose enrolment.

"We should expand public school choice, but we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give themto private schools," say the Democrats.

Many Americans blame the powerful teachers' unions for problems in the public schools, an opinion that Mr Dole exploits.

"The teachers' unions nominated Bill Clinton in 1992, they are funding his re-election now, and they, his most reliable supporters, know he will maintain the status quo," Mr Dole said in his speech to the Republican National Convention last month. "And I say this, not to the teachers, but to their unions: if education were a war, you would be losing it. If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying."

Mr Dole wants to shut down the US Department of Education, which costs taxpayers $33bn (Pounds 22bn) a year, and end Mr Clinton's Goals 2000 programme, which provides federal grants to bring technology to the classroom in exchange for meeting national academic standards. Mr Dole complains that Goals 2000 has done nothing but impose additional bureaucracy, more regulation and federal control of local schools.

Mr Clinton wants to expand federal involvement, pledging $2bn (Pounds 1.3bn) over five years to connect all classrooms to the Internet. According to the president: "We ought to make sure that every classroom in America not only has computers and trained teachers, but is hooked up to the information superhighway by the year 2000 - every single classroom."

He wants to improve literacy by providing nearly $1.5bn (Pounds 1bn) over the next five years to pay for 30,000 reading specialists and volunteers who would tutor 3 million children in 20,000 of the nation's neediest schools.

According to Mr Dole: "Throwing more money at the problem is not the answer. " He recommends that parents turn off the television set for an hour a night and read a book with their children.

This summer, he proposed an education consumer's warranty. It says that all American children should have a guarantee that schools are safe and free from educational malpractice at the hands of incompetent teachers and intrusive bureaucrats. The high school diploma should signify an education suitable for entrance to college or a good job.

The long-time former senator and Second World War hero strongly opposes the voluntary National History Standards, developed at the University of California under a federal grant for use in history classes. Conservatives complain that the standards overstate the negative aspects of American history, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the 1950s rise of McCarthyism, while neglecting Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and other heroes. "It's time we get back to teaching our children the democratic values and achievements that have made America the greatest force for good the world has known," said Mr Dole.

* An American fifth-grade teacher has been told to take leave of absence on psychological grounds for writing threatening letters to herself.

Kathy Gerardi confessed writing the letters to implicate a former student convicted earlier this year of stalking her. One of the notes threatened to "shoot the kids" at the Wilmington, Connecticut, public elementary school where Ms Gerardi worked, touching off a town-wide scare and prompting hundreds of parents to pull their children out of classes.

The Wilmington board of education has placed Ms Gerardi on paid leave for at least a year and assigned a substitute teacher to her classes.

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