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It's Education, Stupid!

Democrats and Republicans are agreed that education is on voters' minds this fall. This bipartisanship has its limits, since the parties' remedies lie far apart. But it also has possible benefits. Maybe we'll actually see some substantial debate on the subject before Nov. 3.

The term-ending squabble over education in Congress set some basic themes. Lawmakers wrangled over how to make $1.1 billion available to the nation's schools. Democrats got a downpayment on the 100,000 new teachers they want. Republicans were able preserve some local say over how these funds would be spent.

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GOP candidates will continue to tout local control. And they'll emphasize school choice - a refrain that rings true for publicly funded charter schools, but can go off-key with school vouchers and the constitutional problems they raise. Democrats will likely adhere to the administration's score: direct federal aid to reduce class sizes and spruce up decrepit classrooms.

Two things to keep in mind:

1. Local control and choice are not necessarily at odds with federal efforts to spur school spending on teachers and upgraded buildings. The federal dollars should come with flexibility. But the amount of federal money is miniscule compared to local and state inputs. The real challenge to local control of schools isn't from Washington, but from state capitals that are in many cases being forced by court decisions to rewrite the rules for education funding, altering the reliance on local property taxes.

2. Much of what candidates for Congress say about education has to be somewhat discounted. Like crime, education is an issue largely outside Washington's control. That's as it has to be in a country as culturally diverse and geographically vast as the US. Washington can strike up a tune, but it can't make everyone dance.

That said, we hope for some lively discussion. Education tops the list of issues for baby-boomer parents wondering how to get their kids through college, for mothers and fathers concerned their children aren't getting needed academic basics, and for everyone worried about the decline of morals and values.

Teacher training, national academic standards, the encouragement of wider options within the public-school system - these are subjects that demand creative thinking, not pat ideological responses. Voters should get involved locally, recognizing that the people they send to Congress are likely to have only a supporting role in bringing about schoolroom change.

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