HOUSTON _ In a speech laced liberally with Spanish, Vice President Al Gore told about 1,000 Hispanic leaders Wednesday that he supports bilingual
education, opposes school vouchers and backs universal pre-school education.

Appearing before the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, the Democrats’ leading presidential contender also called for government action to save Social Security and Medicare _ and said Republican tax cut plans could doom both programs.

Gore did not directly mention Democratic presidential rival Bill Bradley or Texas Gov. George W. Bush _ the GOP front-runner _ although the vice president did belittle one of Bush’s favorite campaign themes: compassionate conservatism. Likewise, Gore said a voucher system to help students attend private schools _ also supported by Bush _ would hurt public schools.

“What we need now is not an abandonment of public education by draining money away from public schools with ill-considered, ill-devised voucher schemes,” Gore said. “We should make a national commitment and go all-out to give access to high-quality pre-school to every child, in every family, all over the United States.”

Gore opened his discourse in Spanish, telling the crowd: “I’m here with you, because as you all know, I love and respect the Latino community.” It was the first of numerous Spanish-language comments by Gore, including a reference to himself as an “abuelito” or “little grandfather” _ which drew laughs.

The crowd generally responded favorably to his comments in Spanish, although applause seemed greatest when Gore took up educational themes. The vice president said the drop-out rate among Hispanic teens is unacceptably high, called for smaller classes, and said every classroom should have Internet access.

“We need revolutionary improvements in our schools, and we need them now,” said Gore. “We have to build new schools, modernize schools and treat our teachers like professionals.”

He tied improvements in schools and the strengthening of the Medicare system and Social Security to responsible tax cuts. He said Republican tax cut plans, which President Clinton has promised to veto, would hurt those efforts.

“We must keep the prosperity going _ but I want to do it the right way _ not by letting people fend for themselves, and hoping for crumbs of compassion,” said Gore. We must “resist the temptation to blow the entire surplus on some risky tax-cut scheme that puts back in the deficit.”

Gore also called for a more accurate census count, contending that the last 1990 Census undercounted Hispanics by more than 5 percent. Democrats have waged a partisan battle with Republicans over the issue, with Democrats saying the use of some statistical sampling would provide a more accurate population count _ especially of minority populations.



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