Caution signs go up whenever Washington politicians start trying to outdo one another as friends of education. Americans have heard enough from "education" presidents and Congresses to be allowed a touch of skepticism.
For all the talk in Washington, education remains essentially a local responsibility in the United States - and a fervently protected one at that. The decisions that make the biggest difference are most likely to occur in classrooms, principals' offices, school board rooms, and state houses.
But Washington can make a difference around the edges, and Democrats and Republicans are eager to wave the banner of education, especially with elections in the air. Right now, the Clinton administration and the Republican leadership in Congress are unfurling theirs.
The president is preparing a five-year, $15 billion program. Among its showcased features: $7.3 billion over five years to recruit and train new teachers and $5 billion for school construction. Both of these are legitimate education priorities. More teachers means smaller classes - a change that encourages, at least, better learning.
Mr. Clinton doesn't have this issue to himself, either. Republican Congressman Bill Paxon of New York (reputedly a rival of Speaker Newt Gingrich's) recently announced an $8 billion plan of block grants to the states to pay for 100,000 new teachers in the next five years. And a number of states, led by California, are launching their own initiatives to reduce class sizes.
Regarding school construction funds, this is a perennial for the administration - and it's perennially right to keep trying. The reports of disintegrating school buildings, particularly in inner cities, amply justify a federal investment. A physical environment that shouts neglect with every falling piece of plaster is hardly compatible with reform.
The need to zero in on the nation's urban public schools is clear. A recent study by Education Week brought to light some dismal statistics. Students in urban settings generally lagged far behind non-urban children on tests assessing reading and math skills.
Republicans are sensitive to these problems too. The GOP's Senate leadership puts major emphasis on vouchers for children from low-income families that could be used for private or parochial schooling. Well intentioned as that may be - and despite its popularity in many minority neighborhoods - it raises thorny constitutional issues. Public money, in voucher form or any other, should not go toward the operation of church-affiliated primary or secondary schools.
The Republicans also would include funding to expand the charter-school experiment. That effort to create more alternatives to traditional public schools has proven to be a stimulus to reform and change. It warrants support.
We look forward to a bipartisan merging of these various proposals.