The ABC's of Vouchers and Politics
Both sides hope to ride the issue

It's almost impossible to pick up a newspaper these days without seeing a photo op of Presidential rivals visiting a public school. On Mar. 24, GOP hopeful George W. Bush met with a multiracial audience at Little Rock's Central High School, symbol of the federal commitment to integration. The same day, rival Al Gore chatted with pupils in suburban Macomb County, Mich., home to the fabled ''Reagan Democrats.''

Voters are going to hear a lot more about education as the Presidential race heats up over the next six months. Although schools have historically been an issue favorable to Democrats, Bush seems to be getting extra credit in polls for increasing teacher accountability and improving test scores during his five years as Texas governor. Gore, for his part, promises ''revolutionary change'' in public schools.

If it all seems kind of quiet, wait until the two pols zero in on the subject of publicly funded vouchers. The controversial idea is likely to take center stage because each contender thinks he can use it to his advantage--even though the two are diametrically opposed on the issue. Bush thinks his support of vouchers will score points among usually antagonistic minority voters like those in Little Rock. And Gore hopes to tap into suburban fears that vouchers would drain scarce resources from their schools. ''Gore is going to push the envelope on vouchers,'' predicts Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the Heritage Foundation. ''So it's important for Bush to make his case.''

Public vouchers, a pet project of conservatives, would allow parents to defray the cost of private or religious school tuition with taxpayer-funded vouchers. They have been tried--with mixed results--in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida. Most recently, on Mar. 14, a Florida judge struck down a statewide program championed by Bush's brother, Governor Jeb Bush.

KEY STATES. Still, Republicans eagerly cite polls showing substantial support for the concept among minority Americans, particularly Latinos, who see their public schools as unsafe and of low quality. ''A lot of schools are in trouble, and it's our [minority] kids who are affected,'' says Hector Barreto Jr., a Los Angeles securities broker and former chairman of the Latin Business Assn. ''Vouchers are one mechanism to provide an alternative.''

Republican strategists say their nominee doesn't have to win a majority of African American or Latino votes. By just outperforming the historical average by 10% to 20%--winning perhaps a fifth of black votes and 40% of Hispanic ones--Bush could tilt key swing states such as California, Ohio, and Illinois.

Bush approaches vouchers cautiously, rarely using the word directly. Instead, he talks about an ''educational choice agenda'' that also includes expansion of charter schools and giving parents greater leeway in picking the public school their children attend. ''I don't know whether or not the voucher system is a panacea, but I'm willing to give it a shot to determine whether it makes sense,'' Bush said at the Little Rock event.

Democrats point to a different demographic calculus. Vouchers are unpopular in the suburbs, a key electoral battleground. Many suburban voters fear that vouchers will siphon money from their cherished schools, forcing local districts to either raise taxes or cut programs to make up for the shortfall.

The danger for both candidates is that their views on vouchers could alienate more voters than they attract. Concedes one GOP strategist: ''Vouchers scare the daylights out of our suburban constituents.'' For Gore, the worry is that he could lose some support among minorities. That's why the Vice-President will remind minority voters that $1,500 in school vouchers won't pay for private school tuition. ''We are going to educate our community about the drawbacks of moving the money out of the public schools,'' vows Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).

With Bush maintaining a narrow edge on the education issue, Democratic consultants say Gore must find ways to energize the debate. ''It's important for Al Gore to develop a distinction between the two on education,'' says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Unless he can do so on vouchers, he could end up flunking his final exams come Election Day.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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The ABC's of Vouchers and Politics

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