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'Education Presidents'

Some candidates may no longer be on the hustings after Tuesday's "national" primary. But key issues are sure to remain there - prominent among them education.

Every presidential hopeful is a would-be school reformer. This is partly a matter of political necessity. Voters consistently put education at the top of their concerns. To talk about how schools can be improved is to be squarely in the political mainstream, where most votes are won.

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But education is also a matter of civic responsibility. American public schools have not stood still during more than a decade and a half of constant calls for reform. There's a healthy amount of innovation, as shown by such projects as charter schools. But standardized test scores, on average, remain mediocre.

The candidates' answers? They break down roughly along partisan lines, with the Democrats calling for large new federal expenditures, particularly on preschool and Head Start, and Republicans hammering on the need for greater school choice. Both approaches include some worthwhile ideas, and raise some problems.

Helping more children, particularly poor children, get better prepared for school is critical. But what assurance is there that the billions proposed by Gore and Bradley would be effectively spent? In particular, where will all the new preschool teachers come from? The field is already short of qualified staff, and pay is often dismal.

The Republican school-choice theme dispenses with the question of how public dollars are spent by putting the decision in the hands of parents, not bureaucrats. This sounds good, and it has shown promise where parents have been able to move their children - and the public dollars for their education - to more-attractive alternatives within the public system. Problems arise when choice means tax-dollar vouchers that can be spent on private or parochial schools. Voucher proponents, including candidates Bush and McCain, say this will pressure public schools to improve. More likely, it would hasten the decline of many public schools, hurting the students who will still have to use them.

As the presidential campaign resumes after Tuesday's sifting, the victors should prepare to add more detail and analysis to their education proposals. How would teacher testing, an idea with appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, be handled? Are educational savings accounts for elementary and secondary schooling, a GOP favorite, just a back-door form of vouchers? Voters should prepare to demand clear answers.

Presidents, of course, can only do so much for school reform. Congress will have its say, and, more important, state and local decisionmakers will continue to hold the main educational reigns. But presidents can set a tone and guide policy in this crucial area. We hope the next occupant of the White House is ready to give real meaning to the much-claimed title, "education president."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society