Bush talks education in GOP role reversal

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Bush talks education in GOP role reversal


By Zachary Coile OF THE EXAMINER STAFF September 16, 2000

Candidate treads on historic Democrat territory as he hunts for California votes

SAN DIEGO -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants California voters to know he is not your average Republican. He actually believes the federal government has a role in education.

"I know it may be strange to hear a Republican say we're not going to abolish the Department of Education," Bush told about 150 parents and school officials packed Friday into the library of the Central Elementary School. "(But) we want to make sure the Department of Education understands the sound principles of high expectations, local control of schools and strong accountability."

As he finished his three-day campaign tour through Southern California, Bush sought to appeal to Californians on an issue at the top of their priority list and counter the conventional wisdom in politics that education belongs to the Democrats.

But the Texas governor's strategy runs up against a harsh reality in the state: Voters tend to trust Democratic Vice President Al Gore more on the issues they rank as most important in this election -- education, health care and protecting Social Security. A Field Poll in August found that 62 percent of California voters said Gore's views on those issues are very similar or similar to their own, while 55 percent said Bush reflected their views.

In California the past three days, Bush hewed closely to his campaign's theme-of-the-week: closing the "achievement gap" between poor and minority students and their peers nationwide. It was a sharp contrast to the last two weeks, when Bush had been thrown off stride by the hubbub over calling a New York Times reporter a vulgarity and a Republican TV ad attacking Gore that allegedly contained a subliminal message.

Talking up education reform

On the trip, he visited two schools, Santa Ana High School in Orange County and Central Elementary in a Latino, working-class neighborhood in San Diego. Even at his other events, Bush talked up his education reform plans. His campaign aides say the governor has visited more than 100 schools since June 1999.

Bush has moved away from a Republican tenet of at least the past two decades by pledging to keep a major federal role in education and boost government spending on schools.

But much of his school reform plan fits the rest of the GOP's education agenda: more local control of education spending, stronger accountability measures tied to test scores, and a voucher program that uses taxpayer money to give students in failing schools a scholarship for a private or parochial school.

In his speech at the Central Elementary, he painted education reform as a nonpartisan issue.

"I don't think education is political," he said. "I think good education is important public policy that transcends politics."

Bush called for a back-to-basics approach and an end to what he dubbed a "feel good education." He backed special testing of kindergarten through sixth-grade students to make sure they are able to read, and he wants to spend more money on literacy programs.

Praised for accountability

Bush was praised by speakers at the event for his focus on accountability in Texas, which won't allow students to graduate without passing a statewide assessment test. Central Principal Elaine Arm called him an "education governor."

Some Bush supporters are forthright about the candidate's effort to distance himself from the traditional GOP campaign tactics on education -- which include bashing the teacher unions and vowing to eliminate the Department of Education.

"I think Gov. Bush is trying to change that image," Rudy Castruita, the superintendent of education for San Diego County and a member of the California "Educators for Bush" steering committee. "He's trying to get the Republican party to address the issue of flexibility for the local school district and empowerment. The federal government can't run local school districts out of Washington, D.C."

Democrats have tried to undermine Bush's efforts to appear education-friendly. About three dozen Gore supporters, many from local labor unions, chanted, "Schools, Yes, Bush, No!" outside the school. Several members held up a report card that gave the Texas governor an F in education.

Critic of Bush's voucher system

Justine Sarver, the director of the Labor-Neighbor get-out-the-vote effort for San Diego and Imperial counties, said Bush's support of vouchers could further undermine already struggling public schools.

"The money that goes to vouchers would be taken away from neighborhood schools," Sarver said.

Vouchers are a particularly relevant topic in California where voters on Nov. 7 will decide about Proposition 38, a plan to provide $4,000 in state money for students to use at private or parochial schools.

But parents who came out to hear Bush speak said they were impressed.

"I think he'd get more money for schools to support the kids," said Ouvra Languren, who has a first-grader at Central. Another parent, Seferina Diaz, said she didn't care that many of her Latino neighbors would vote for Gore.

"I'm 100 percent for Bush," said Diaz, parent of a second-grader. "He supports Latinos."

California's priority

The issue of education is a key concern to voters nationally, but new polls have shown it may no longer be the top priority. A CBS News national survey of 843 registered voters conducted Sept. 9-11 found that 18 percent ranked Medicare and Social Security as the top problem facing government, while 16 percent said it was health care. Education ranked third: 12 percent said it was the top concern.

In California, it's still the paramount concern. The Field Poll taken just before the Republican National Convention in late July found that 17 percent felt education was the No. 1 issue, with Social Security and Medicare viewed as most important by 11 percent of voters.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 17, 2000

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