Engaged in a quest to gain insight into the inner workings of public schools, Vice President Al Gore finds himself seated uncomfortably at a small table in a kindergarten classroom, attempting to engage a reserved, dark-haired boy in conversation. However, the boy remains unresponsive, so Mr. Gore turns his attention to a lively, toothless girl in the class. It becomes apparent that she has recently received $5 from the tooth fairy, causing the vice president to exclaim, "Oh, the rate’s going up!" This comment elicits nervous laughter from a few adult observers in the quiet room.
Similar scenes unfold during Mr. Gore’s visit to Avondale Elementary School on April 11, marking the second in a series of "school days" that the presumptive Democratic nominee for president has committed to conducting once a week throughout his campaign. If elected in November, he intends to continue these visits, albeit with less frequency. While Mr. Gore is primarily known for his focus on environmental issues, technology, and government "reinvention," these visits to schools demonstrate his growing emphasis on education since embarking on his presidential campaign. Prior to outlining his own agenda last year, his involvement in education was largely demonstrated through his enthusiastic support for school initiatives endorsed by President Clinton. These included the hiring of 100,000 new teachers, significant increases in funding for after-school programs, expanded college-tuition assistance, and the promotion of academic standards and accountability. Notably, Mr. Gore has been a staunch advocate for integrating technology into classrooms and played a key role in establishing the federal E-rate program, which offers telecommunications service discounts to schools and libraries.
"Clinton did rely on him as a trusted advisor, but his public record indicates that his primary focus in education was technology," remarked John F. Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington and a former aide to House Democrats. "As vice president, he did not appear to be heavily involved in education issues." However, Mr. Gore now asserts that education is his foremost priority. He has unveiled an expansive plan to allocate $115 billion from the federal budget surplus over the next decade in order to expand the $35.6 billion discretionary budget of the U.S. Department of Education. This plan encompasses initiatives such as providing universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, implementing higher standards for teachers in exchange for salary increases, and increasing funding for special education, among other strategies. In an interview with Education Week following his visit to Avondale Elementary, Mr. Gore emphasized, "We have reached a point where education must be viewed not just as supplemental assistance that yields incremental progress, but as a catalyst for revolutionizing education. Slow, incremental progress is no longer sufficient; we need to make significant strides at a faster pace." The vice president is poised to compete against Governor George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee who has forged a strong association with educational matters since assuming office in 1995. Governor Bush has proposed a federal plan for school accountability, which includes the eventual closure of underperforming Title I schools and granting their students vouchers to seek alternative education in private, religious, or other public schools. ("Bush Leading Republicans in New Direction," April 5, 2000.)
Central to Mr. Gore’s plan is the implementation of new accountability measures for teachers, students, and schools. He envisions all states requiring high school students to pass graduation exams. Additionally, school districts would be obligated to issue report cards for all schools, identifying and addressing deficiencies in failing institutions or potentially shutting them down and reopening them under new administration. In exchange for higher salaries, teachers would need to demonstrate their academic-content knowledge through testing and participate in peer-review programs.
During his recent visit to Avondale Elementary, Mr. Gore took the opportunity to promote his "universal preschool plan," which aims to provide early education to all 4-year-olds and an increasing number of 3-year-olds. Bruce Fuller, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education at the University of California, Berkeley, commended the plan as a significant step forward. However, Fuller emphasized that Mr. Gore should address the issue of recruiting and training high-quality preschool teachers.
One of the challenges is that the efforts to reduce class sizes in K-12 schools have already attracted some of the best preschool teachers, exacerbating the shortage, Fuller added. Furthermore, Mr. Gore’s plan aligns with some of President Clinton’s favored initiatives. It includes the controversial proposal to increase federal funding for school construction and maintains funding for hiring new teachers, reducing class sizes, and expanding Head Start programs. Technology funding is also a priority.
Republicans have criticized Mr. Gore’s plan, arguing that it grants too much funding and control to the federal government. Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, characterized the proposed $115 billion figure as unrealistic and not based on a thorough assessment of public policy needs. Nina Shokraii Rees, an education policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation and a volunteer adviser to Governor Bush’s campaign, expressed her disagreement, stating that while these ideas could be beneficial at the state or local level, she opposes imposing them from the federal level.
Avondale Elementary was selected for Mr. Gore’s visit because its 4th graders demonstrated remarkable progress in the district’s assessments last year. Situated in a blighted, predominantly white working-class neighborhood near downtown Columbus, the 109-year-old school provided a fitting backdrop. As part of his approach for these "school days" visits, Mr. Gore chose to stay overnight at the home of a teacher to gain further insight into education issues and the challenges faced by working families. During his time at Avondale, he was hosted by special education teacher Susan Fadley, and together, they engaged in a late-night conversation about personal matters and school-related topics. Mr. Gore later referred to the visit as an enriching experience, admitting to losing a bit of sleep, but gaining a lot in return.
During his visit, Mr. Gore interacted with various stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and custodial staff. He attended multiple classes, even participating in an art activity where he created a collage. Additionally, he assisted in teaching a lesson on parallelograms. While he may not possess the same charisma and charm as his running mate, many teachers found him more impressive in person than on television. Delores Minnix, an assistant librarian who had yet to decide which candidate to vote for in the general election, praised Mr. Gore for his down-to-earth nature and thoughtful questions during his discussions with parents and teachers.
Ms. Minnix’s sentiment was echoed by Ms. Burns, the principal of Avondale Elementary, who stated that Mr. Gore was the first local or national official to visit the school in recent memory, despite its impressive progress. The visit has generated considerable excitement within the community, given the vice president’s presence.