Gore targets Bush on schools, taxes

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 10/26/2000

ASHVILLE - Al Gore, the sometimes bloodless campaigner, was out for blood yesterday, deriding George W. Bush's education proposals as full of ''nice-sounding rhetoric'' and ''shortcuts'' that have achieved ''illusory test scores.''

Addressing an audience of students, Gore also put a tough new spin on the Republican nominee's $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan.

''He would give more in tax cuts to the wealthiest 90,000 multimillionaires than he would give in the form of all the new investments he has proposed to make in all 90,000 public schools, combined,'' the vice president charged.

''My opponent's plan gives 20 times more in a tax cut to the wealthiest one percent than all the new money he would invest in elementary and secondary education, nationwide.''

The focal point for Gore's sharply critical speech at Tennessee State University was a new study by the RAND Corp. The nonpartisan think-tank reported that from 1994 to 1998, a period when Bush has been in office, fourth- and eighth-graders in Texas made higher gains on the state Texas Assessment of Academic Skills than they achieved in the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress. Also, the performance gap between white and minority students increased in the national test.

On the stump, the Texas governor plays up his state's improvements, citing them as proof of what he could do with education nationally. But the study's authors said their findings might show that Texas educators are teaching to their local test, not developing the broader academic skills needed to perform on the national survey. One labeled the ''Texas miracle'' in education a ''myth.''

The Bush campaign dismissed the study, and the release of its timing, as political. But Gore seized upon it.

''Now this is the bottom line,'' he said, with his running mate, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman sharing the stage.

''We cannot afford to teach kids how to take a state test while leaving them with serious learning deficits. We cannot afford that kind of short-sighted shortcut in education policy any more than we can afford it in economic policy, where we cannot afford to cook the books and bust our budget, leaving America with endless financial deficits,'' said Gore.

After a point-by-point dissection of Bush's proposals, the vice president called for ''tests that have integrity.'' He also sought an end to ''shortcuts that produce illusory test scores that might elevate the reputations of school administrators and politicians, but actually do nothing to really raise the standards or lift up our children.''

Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett scoffed at Gore's criticism, saying he sponsored only four education bills during 16 years in Congress.

''Since leaving Tennessee, Al Gore has changed his positions on abortion, guns, and tobacco, but one thing has been consistent: Education has never been one of his priorities,'' Bartlett said. ''The achievement gap between rich and poor students has widened under Clinton/Gore and gone down in Texas under Governor Bush.''

Both Bush and Gore have pledged to make improving education their top priority if elected president, a reflection of polls showing it as the No. 1 issue this year among voters.

Bush has proposed $48 billion in new education spending annually. He would require annual testing of students from third through eighth grades and would pump money into reading education and teacher training. He also has threatened to take away federal education assistance from underperforming schools so parents could have vouchers to subsidize the cost of private education.

Gore has proposed $115 billion in new spending, including money to let all 4-year-olds attend preschool, to rebuild schools, and to hire 100,000 new teachers. He opposes vouchers.

In his remarks, the vice president struck at one Bush idea: increasing funding for Pell grants, which are used to pay college tuition.

''He talks about increasing Pell grants, and that sounds good, until you look at the fine print and see that he does it only for a student's freshman year. That's not a path to a college degree; that's a guaranteed college drop-out plan,'' Gore said.

The Nashville speech came the morning after Gore and Lieberman attended a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at the Wildhorse Saloon. The headliner was singer Tony Bennett, prompting Lieberman to joke, ''It was a pretty exciting time when Al Gore asked me to be his running mate, but to get to meet Tony Bennett, wow!''