the choice 2000
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issue: education
· should parents be allowed to use taxpayer funded vouchers to pay for private school?

· should schools be held responsible for student performance?

· how can higher education be made more accessible to Americans?

what they say
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For most Americans, this is the issue to watch in Campaign 2000. In poll after poll, education reform is consistently given highest priority by voters, who say they are frustrated by poor academic standards, crowded classrooms, lack of discipline and low morale in the nation's public schools. Public schools enrolled a record 53 million children this year, but parents are increasingly opting out. One quarter of all school age children attend private, magnet and charter schools, while three percent are home-schooled.

One thing seems clear: schools are in for a fundamental change no matter who occupies the White House this fall: both Bush and Gore propose a much greater federal role in the school system than ever before, though their approaches are very different.

School choice and vouchers are perhaps the most controversial issue of this election. In states like Vermont, Flordia and Wisconsin, vouchers allow students in under-performing schools to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools. Proponents, including some minorities who have traditionally been advocates of public education, say this offers hope for disadvantaged students.

But critics say that vouchers further weaken the beleaguered public school system and also violate the principle of the separation of church and state. Vouchers could potentially transform school education, but recent polls have found that most Americans do not understand what they are and how they work.

Issues like mandatory school uniforms and public school prayer are still alive, but in no way are they as significant as the notion of "school choice" in this year's presidential campaign.

FRONTLINE's report "School Choice" provides an overview of the candidates' positions on vouchers, as well as a comparison of their positions on other issues related to education.


Given the enormous public interest and pressure, both candidates are brandishing their credentials as education reformers. Unlike most recent presidential campaigns, it is the Republican candidate who has more experience and more passionate views on education.

During his sixteen years in Congress, Gore did not serve on any education-related committees, though he did co-sponsor two pieces of legislation to bring distance learning technology into schools. As Vice President, he has supported smaller class sizes and greater access to college education.

PBS's NewsHour offers an online report examining Gore's education record.

Bush, on the other hand, made education reform the centerpiece of his administration in Texas. During his tenure, standards at many public schools increased dramatically. The Bush campaign has contended that Texas students, especially minorities, have shown four straight years of improvements in statewide standardized tests, but an October, 2000 report by the non-partisan RAND corporation questions whether minorities have really significantly improved. Bush has pointed to his results to show that all students will do well if they are held accountable to high standards; expecting less of poor minority students, he frequently states, is "the soft bigotry of low expectations." To critics, Bush's Texas education policies have made teachers in Texas too focused on standardized tests while ignoring other issues like school resources, teacher training, and class size.

PBS's NewsHour offers an online report examining Bush's education reforms in Texas.


Should parents be allowed to use taxpayer funded vouchers to pay for private school?

Gore opposes vouchers, which he says will drain much-needed resources from the public school system. However, he does support instituting competition among public schools. Critics say his position is influenced by teacher's unions, which are opposed to vouchers.

Bush supports providing up to $1500 in vouchers every year, though he favors the term "scholarships." This money would be offered to failing students and students in poorly performing schools to be used towards parochial or private school tuition or private tutorials. Bush believes this will introduce competition and improve public school performance. Critics say this will skim the best students and much needed resources from the public school system.

Should schools be held responsible for student performance?

Gore's $115 billion proposal focuses on increasing funding for schools and improving teacher quality rather than on holding schools directly accountable for student performance. He would use the funds to build schools, improve federal education standards, train and pay more teachers, and provide universal preschool education by 2004. He would also increase federal aid to schools which reduce class size to 20 students. Though Gore does not support regular standardized tests, he does back high school exit exams. (More on Gore's education proposals.)

Bush's $13 billion proposal reflects his approach to education in Texas: setting well defined standards and then holding school districts accountable for student performance. He supports tying federal aid to performance of students in annual tests in reading and math. He would shift five percent of federal aid to charter schools in states where public school performance does not improve and spend a billion dollars annually to elevate literacy and reading competence at kindergarten and elementary school level. He proposes allowing parents to set aside $5000 instead of the current $500 tax free for school education expenses. (More on Bush's education proposals.)

How can higher education be made more accessible to Americans?

Affordable higher education has been a signature Gore theme throughout the campaign. He proposes a $10,000 tax deduction per family for college tuition, up to a maximum of $2800 a year. Families would also be allowed to save tax free for higher education under a new 401 (j) provision.

Bush has pledged to increase the Pell grant from $3300 to $5000, to establish a "College Challenge" Grant which will cover one-third of state costs to establish a merit scholarship program, and to grant complete tax exemption to qualified pre-paid and tuition savings plans, including independent prepaid tuition plans.


FRONTLINE'S report "The Battle for School Choice" presents video interviews with Gore and Bush's showing where and how they differ on dealing with the school 'crisis,' plus a rundown on the pros and cons of charter schools, vouchers and for-profit academies.
The New York Times Education Issue Updates (requires free registration)
The STAR report on the effect of small class sizes on student performance
"Redefining Public Schools" (Education Week)
"The Truth about Texas School Reform" (Salon)
"Vouchers and Charter Schools: The Latest Evidence"
"Battling for the Heart and Soul of Home-Schoolers" (Salon)
National Center for Education Reform (pro-voucher)

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