TOPICS > Politics

Issue & Debate: Education Reform

October 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: When pollsters measured voters’ minute-by-minute response to the first presidential debate, they found some of the biggest reactions, positive and negative, were generated by the following exchange.

PRESIDENT CLINTON [from fist presidential debate]: I think my ideas are better for the future. Sen. Dole voted against student loans, against Head Start, against creating the Department of Education. If he gets elected President, we’ll start the new century without anyone in the cabinet as a president representing education and our children. I personally don’t think it’s the right kind of future for America, and I think we ought to take a different tack.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dole, do you still favor eliminating the Department of Education?

SEN. ROBERT DOLE: Yes. I didn’t favor it. When it started, I voted against it. It was a tribute that after President Carter’s election to the National Education Association. We sent a lot of delegates to the Democratic Convention, 99.5 percent of their money to the Democrats and the President, and a lot of the teachers send their kids to private schools, or better public schools.

MARGARET WARNER: Two days later, the Clinton-Gore campaign began running this television spot.

BOB DOLE: Give children a chance in life, give them an education.

BOB DOLE: We’re going to eliminate the Department of Education. We don’t need it in the first place. I didn’t vote for it in 1979.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Dole tried to slash college scholarships.

BOB DOLE: Voting against Medicare.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Wrong in the past.

BOB DOLE: We’re going to eliminate the Department of Education.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Wrong for our future.

MARGARET WARNER: But Bob Dole hasn’t backed down on his criticism of the current state of the nation’s public schools as he made clear today in a speech in Kansas City.

BOB DOLE: What’s wrong with education? There are too many bureaucrats that called the NEA, and they’re trying to decide what your children will learn, are trying to dictate the curriculum, and where’s President Clinton. Is he for educational reform? Is he thinking about your children? What have they said? They can’t say anything because the NEA leaders won’t let him say anything. They won’t let him say anything. One fourth the high school students in America are called functionally illiterate. Most colleges now teach remedial reading so you can carry out your college courses. The dropout rates have increased in some inner cities over 50 percent. And a lot of inner cities and teachers send their kids to private schools, but they won’t let you send your kids to better schools.

MARGARET WARNER: Their disagreement over the Department of Education underscores the two candidates’ very different approaches to the whole education issue. The President sees a significant role for the federal government in shoring up the nation’s public school system, which has traditionally been a state and local responsibility. Sen. Dole wants to return virtually all responsibility to the state and local level, and he would use taxpayer money to let parents opt out of the public schools altogether if they wish.

President Clinton’s proposals include the following: ongoing federal support for the Goals 2000 program, which funds state efforts to adopt tougher academic standards a $2.7 billion reading core of volunteers to make sure every child can read by the third grade a $1500 tax credit to the community college tuition a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition, and a major federal investment to make the Internet accessible to every classroom in America.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Now folks, if we do these things, every 8 year old will be able to read, every 12 year old will be able to log in on the Internet, every 18 year old will be able to go to college, and all Americans will have the knowledge they need to cross that bridge to the 21st Century. (applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Dole’s approach is far simpler: let parents take the money from his 15 percent tax cut to apply to education expenses if they wish, eliminate the Department of Education and return its $28 billion a year budget in grants to the states spend $5 billion a year to create government-funded vouchers for private school tuition in 15 states.

Bob Dole says all parents, not just the wealthy, should have access to private schools, and he blames the teachers unions for generating opposition to the idea.

BOB DOLE [during his acceptance speech in San Diego]: I say this not to the teachers but to their unions. I say this: 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 dying, and to the Teachers Union as I say when I’m President, I will disregard your political power for the sake of the parents and the children, the schools, and the nation.

MARGARET WARNER: At the Democratic Convention, President Clinton defended teachers against Dole’s attacks.

PRESIDENT CLINTON [in his acceptance speech in Chicago]: We should reward teachers that are doing a good job, remove those who don’t measure up but in every case never forget that none of us would be here tonight if it weren’t for our teachers. I know I wouldn’t. We ought to lift them up, not tear them down.

MARGARET WARNER: But by far, the starkest contrast between the two candidates is over Dole’s proposal for private school vouchers which he calls “opportunity scholarships”. The President has endorsed parental choice but only within the public school system.

SEN. BOB DOLE [from first presidential debate]: It seems to me that we ought to take that money we can save from the Department of Education, put in opportunity scholarships and tell little Landale Shakespeare out in Cleveland, Ohio, and tell your mother and father, you’re going to get to go to school because we’re going to match what the state puts up, and you’re going to get to go to the school of your choice. I don’t fault the President or the Vice President for sending their children to private schools or better schools. I applaud ’em for it. I don’t criticize them. But why shouldn’t everybody have that choice? Why shouldn’t low income Americans and low middle income Americans? I’m excited about it. It’s going to be a big, big opportunity for a lot of people.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, what’s wrong with the school choice proposal?

PRESIDENT CLINTON [from first presidential debate]: I support school choice. I support school choice. I have advocated expansions of public school choice alternatives, and I said the creation of 3,000 new schools, that we are going to help the states to finance, but if you’re going to have a private voucher plan, that ought to be determined by states and localities where they’re raising and spending most of the money. I simply think it’s wrong to take money away from programs that are helping build basic skills for kids–90 percent of them are in public schools–to take money away from programs that are helping fund the school lunch program, that are helping to fund the other programs that are helping our schools to improve their standards.