Education and Big Politics

This is the first in a periodic series on major issues in the 1964 Presidential campaign.

Expressing qualms about the American educational system, one Harvard official remarks. "The level of excellence in Japan is so far beyond what we're doing that our kids would not even have the right to carry the books of the Japanese kids."

"We have got to get back to a concentrated core curriculum," says Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. John H. Glenn, (D-Ohio) commenting on the problems of secondary school education. "What is important in education is math, and science, and English, and composition, and foreign language, and all those things that go into a very good basic education."

Another Presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, has gone so far as to argue--in a debate last month at the Kennedy School--that cuts in the Reagan Administration's education budgets over the last three years are directly responsible for the ballooning foreign trade deficit. These varied comments reflect the reality that, in an election year, issues concerning education on all levels--be it elementary, secondary, or collegiate--have become a hot political issue. Candidates on all fronts are moving to gain votes from an electorate that is showing increased frustration with the U.S. educational system, and some are blaming the decline of industrial productivity and the recent recession on educational failings.

The issue of education, of course, is not new to politics. The United States made a concerted effort to push math and science in schools following the Soviet launching of Sputnik in the late 1950s. But in the space of four years, since the last Presidential election year, education has jumped from sitting on the backburner to being one of the most debated topics on the campaign trail.

Part of the reason for this is the flurry of commission reports that have emerged in the last year bemoaning the decline of the U.S. education system and calling for the reinstitution of tougher curriculum standards at all levels. These ranged from a report commissioned by Reagan himself to ones carried out by several private foundations.


Moreover, at least in the higher education sphere, the Reagan efforts to slice into student financial aid from the government has spawned an unusually vehement reaction from some constituents groups, especially students themselves.

The result is that presidential candidates of all stripes are waving the educational banner in the current campaign--vigorously debating such issues as "merit pay" for teachers, throwing out plans for funneling more money into educational programs, and generally trying to out-promise each other over what they plan to do to get the nation's schools back on track.

Considering just a few of the candidates who have been most outspoken on the matter gives an idea of the extensive role to which the education issue ha come to play in the campaign:

* Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale has proposed a more vigorous federal approach to the issue. He wants to establish a federally sponsored "Fund for Excellence.." which would pump money to community education groups;

* Colorado Sen. Gary W. Hart has devoted a good deal of time to highlighting his relatively young age (46) and his understanding of the concerns of the post-War generation. The centerpiece of his education platform is his so-called American Defense Education Act. a program be proposed last year to beet up teaching in much, science, and computer use.

* South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, in his capacity as a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, has moved to increase funding for the 1984 education budget by $1 billion, upping the eventual outlay to $16.1. Hollings has in particular, gone after Reagan's hike in defense spending as a prime reason for the decline in education, saying in a recent speech. "I think the school children of America are worth at least one weapons system."

* President Reagan has taken a different tack in his stand on educational issues, stressing the important role states have to play in combatting drug use and violence in schools and reinstating "traditional roles." In his televised announcement two weeks ago that he was seeking reelection, Reagan said that schools must "find room for God," a reference to his efforts to bring voluntary prayer back to the classroom.

While it is these candidates who have generally taken the lead on the education issues, the rest of the eight Democratic candidates have also worked many of the same themes into their campaign rhetoric. Still, expects are unsure as to the role any of these issues might play in the unfolding campaign.

Education issues really fall into two camps--the primary and secondary school questions and the collegiate questions--both of which are markedly different Debate on the kindergarten to high school years has focused on a range of topics--from teacher training and core curriculi to computer literacy, math and science competency, and tuition tax credits for parents of private school children.

On the other hand, the issue in higher education, say experts, is mostly money--money for students and money for research.

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