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GOP education agenda includes `school choice'

With an eye on the 1998 elections, congressional Republicans are pushing an autumn education agenda that ranges from savings accounts with tax-free interest to helping poor children opt out of troubled public schools.

Some bills enjoy relatively strong bipartisan support - one in the House backing charter schools breezed to committee passage - but others are drawing strong opposition from Democrats, who argue they would undermine the public education system.Not so, say Republicans, who insist the package is designed to give parents additional control over their children's education.

"The bottom line is, the time has come for school choice," Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House Republican whip, said in a recent debate. "The time has come for us to give parents the opportunity to have a greater role in choosing the right school for their own children and not have bureaucrats make that decision."

In political terms, Republican officials acknowledge the cluster of bills is designed to soften voter opposition to the party's approach to education, an issue that has hurt GOP candidates in recent elections.

Overall, Republicans must "demonstrate a commitment to improving the quality of education in the public schools while advocating parental responsibility and involvement," pollster Linda DiVall advised in a presentation for prospective GOP candidates in next year's congressional elections.

"We cannot simplistically talk about eliminating the Department of Education and dismantling the education bureaucracy. This is a nonstarter," she said in a document that listed education as an imperative for redressing a chronic "gender gap" confronting Republicans.

Education has been near the top of the public's agenda for months, pollsters have found.