Education Central in Senate Race

Article excerpt

U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb and his Republican challenger, former Gov. George F. Allen, repeatedly returned to education during their debate at Tysons Corner yesterday, marking it as the make-or-break issue in their race for Mr. Robb's seat.

The two candidates spent much of their nearly hourlong debate before 700 business executives from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce trying to claim the issue as their own.

"I don't believe anything government does, at any level, is more important than education - nothing," Mr. Robb said.

He criticized Mr. Allen's education plan centerpiece - a $1,000-per-child tax credit for families to pay for education supplies like books and computers, but not tuition - as a break mostly for wealthy families. The plan doesn't refund money, and since many low-income families don't pay income tax or pay less than $1,000, it would help them less than higher-income families.

Mr. Robb also said the $30 billion a year the plan would return to families could, in the government's hands, pay for more teachers or security officers in schools.

Mr. Allen responded that the money should be in parents' hands.

"I trust parents to make this very special, individualized, understanding and careful education decision for their children," he said.

Mr. Allen said the plan - which he has promised will be his first bill submitted if he's elected - will help parents buy computers or pay for Internet access and bridge the so-called "digital divide" between those with and without on-line access.

He also said he would be open to making the credit refundable, so low-income families could get money back, even if they don't pay taxes.

Despite the attacks, Mr. Allen feels he is on comfortable ground with the tax-credit proposal, which polls show resonates well with Virginians.

Mr. Robb, 61, is seeking his third term as senator, after serving in the early 1980s as governor. Mr. Allen, 48, also is a former governor, having served from 1994 to 1998.

Yesterday's debate, which was shown live and replayed later on local cable station NewsChannel 8, followed one in Richmond a mere 16 hours earlier. Sunday's debate was televised on major local stations in Roanoke, Norfolk and Richmond, but was only available delayed and on cable in Northern Virginia. It also had to compete with the Redskins football game against the Giants, as well as the Olympics.

Mr. Robb came out of the box trying to pin Mr. Allen on his pro-life abortion position again, and Mr. Allen's opening remarks focused on transportation - a critical issue in vote-rich Northern Virginia.

But neither issue stuck, and both men gravitated back to fiscal issues and education. …