Zippergate pays dividends for education

UNITED STATES: Schools across America will benefit from the Monica Lewinsky affair thanks to the Democratic party's decision to campaign hard on education reforms to deflect from the scandal.

In the closing days of the elections to the US Congress, Senate, and state governments President Bill Clinton chose as his principal message that Republicans had failed to fix schools or repair education. He flagged his own initiative to hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce school class sizes.

Meanwhile, in local races from California to Massachusetts Democrats made education a central plank of their campaigns.

Voters seemed to respond to the message. In exit polls, 20 per cent named education as the issue that mattered most to them in mid-term elections where the Democrats fared surprisingly well.

In California, residents troubled by standards in America's largest state school system, with 5.6 million pupils, approved a ballot initiative to raise $9 billion (Pounds 5.6 billion) in funds to lower class sizes and improve school buildings.

Meanwhile, California's first Democrat governor in 16 years promised to concentrate on education from his first day in office. Governor-elect Gray Davis will call a special session of the California legislature to implement reforms on teaching reading, basic skills training for teachers and holding schools accountable for their performance.

However, his plans may founder thanks to the California Teachers' Association, the union which poured $1 million into his campaign but has fixed a pay raise as its first priority.

But California's election produced a resounding defeat for Republican candidates who had supported voucher plans for parents to use government money to send children to private or church schools. Republican Gloria Matta Tuchman, heavily backed by conservative school reformers, lost in her bid to become California's school superintendent.

In Massachusetts, Democrat candidate for Governor Scott Harshbarger named education as his top priority but lost to a Republican. But in Alabama, a conservative southern state, Democrat Don Siegelman was the surprise winner with a plan to tap gambling revenues to bring extra cash for schools.

In Florida, Republican Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush, won the governor's race in which he had pledged to make Florida schools "world-class". Education issues were a constant theme in the state, where Bush picked education commissioner Frank Brogan, a former teacher, as his running-mate.

While his opponent promised to pump billions of extra dollars into the education system, Jeb Bush has put his backing squarely behind a school voucher scheme. It would make vouchers available to students in state schools that had failed to meet certain standards.

Vouchers, a cause close to the hearts of American conservatives, got a boost recently from a New York survey suggesting pupils who used them to move from state schools into private schools improved their grades over those who stayed behind.

But in Florida, public reaction was mixed. While Jeb Bush won by a solid majority, 60 per pent of voters told exit pollsters that state school vouchers were a bad thing, and he will have to rally support to implement his plan.

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