Originally created 09/07/98

Education gets focus in elections



ROCK HILL, S.C. -- The spotlight is more likely than usual to be on education issues this week as political campaigning kicks into full swing and the state Basic Skills Assessment Program results are released.

Labor Day is the traditional kickoff to the political season, and the state Education Department is scheduled to release BSAP results Wednesday -- giving politicians more fodder for November's elections.

"White, suburban voters usually vote Republican, and they are concerned about education," said Glean Broach, a Winthrop University political science professor. "If Democrats can convince them that they can fix education, that has a great appeal."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hodges has pinned his hopes on an education platform, promising to work for a lottery for education if he is elected.

Meanwhile, Gov. David Beasley has been touting his support for the School Accountability Act and all-day kindergarten as key initiatives that will reverse the state's failing educational curve.

Within hours after South Carolina's Scholastic Assessment Test results were released last week, Mr. Hodges' education campaign ads were running on the television.

South Carolina once again ranked last in the country on the college entrance exams, and Democrats seized on the opportunity to blame the governor.

"It was disheartening, but it kind of energized everybody," said Mr. Hodges' spokesman, George Shelton. "Yes, it helped our campaign, but we don't want to see South Carolina's schools getting worse."

But campaign officials for Mr. Beasley said voters should be wary of any promises to fix such a widespread problem.

"The SAT scores confirm what the governor has been saying all along," said Eric Cavanaugh, spokesman for the Beasley campaign. "We need sweeping reforms instead of a quick fix."

The governor's campaign isn't the only race in which education has come to the forefront.

Republican challenger Mike Burkhold said 5th District U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., also must take responsibility for the sad state of South Carolina's education system.

"This state's SATs are still in the pits," Mr. Burkhold said. "John Spratt has been in office for 16 years. If he takes credit for the economy, then he should take credit for the SAT scores."

Mr. Spratt, an eight-term incumbent who has been targeted by GOP leaders as one of up to 30 vulnerable Democrats in Congress, said the low scores are a "call to action" for more family involvement and rigorous approaches to prepare for the SAT.

"We need to bear down and start math education sooner," Mr. Spratt said. "We have our work cut out for us."