LAMONI, Iowa, May 16 (Reuters) – Al Gore on Sunday proposed paying $10,000 to professionals who become teachers and the creation of an army of on-line tutors in what was billed as the Democratic front-runner’s first major policy address of the presidential campaign.
“Some say that there is no national role in helping communities improve their schools. I say that education is our No. 1 national priority for investing in the future,” Vice President Gore, sporting an academic cap and gown, told a college graduation ceremony.
Fresh from the weekend opening his Iowa campaign office, where the February caucuses will be the first major test of the presidential campaign, Gore received more than a dozen ovations from an appreciative audience that included the 439 graduates of Graceland College, a school founded in 1958 by the Reformed Church of Latter-Day Saints.
Gore, currently the front-runner for the Democratic nomination with a double-digit lead in early polls over his sole rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, laid out what he termed his “ambitious but reasonable” education agenda. He proposed:
- Offering $10,000 bonuses to talented professionals willing to switch to teaching.
- Giving new teachers up to $10,000 for college if they teach for four years in high-need schools, such as in inner cities.
- Making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.
- Creating higher standards for new teachers, including mandatory skills tests.
- Making preschool available to every child.
- Creating “second-chance schools” for kids who have been expelled or appear headed for serious trouble.
- Reducing class sizes to a national average of 18 in lower grades and to an average of 20 in all grades.
- Creating smaller high schools, instead of the gigantic “factory-style” schools that he linked to recent high-profile violent attacks by students.
“We should commit ourselves to fundamentally changing the American high school,” Gore said. “We’ve done some things wrong in education and here’s one of them: Herding all students in a 25-square-mile (65-sq-km) area into overcrowded, factory-style high schools where individuals get lost.
“When teachers and principals must practice crowd control, it becomes impossible to spot the early warning signs of violence, depression or academic failure; and it becomes even harder to do something about it,” he said.
He said parents need more school choice, but rejected the concept of providing vouchers for public school students to attend private and parochial schools as a “false promise.”
“That would only make things much worse,” he said of vouchers, which are championed by many Republicans.
Gore, a strong advocate of outfitting every school with computers with access to the Internet, urged the creation of a volunteer army of on-line tutors and mentors.
And he suggested that families be offered the incentive of tax-free savings accounts to accumulate school tuition for their children.
“We help people save for retirement tax-free, and help them pay their mortgages tax-free, now we must help them save tax-free for one of the biggest expenses most families will ever have in life: sending a child to college,” he said.
Gore said 20 states have tuition savings programs, and he encouraged other states to adopt them.
Gore also proposed that employers create “401-J” accounts for their employees– similar to the untaxed contributions to workers’ 401-K retirement savings accounts — that would go to pay for job training and continuing education.
Reaction to Gore’s speech in a steamy campus athletic arena was nearly uniformly favorable.
“I thought it was a fantastic speech. I could tell very much he was interested in education and that’s the answer to our problems in the world today,” said Larry Norris of St. Joseph, Missouri.
But Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. secretary of education, said Gore’s education proposals amounted to creation of a “national school board” that promised only mediocrity.
“He wants teachers whose qualifications would be set in Washington,” Alexander said in a telephone interview. “It’s a question of who knows what’s best — Washington or the local school boards, teachers and parents.”
Alexander suggested the federal government provide $1,500 scholarships to middle- and low-income students that would be allocated at the local level to anything from building more schools to paying teachers more.