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The New Education President?

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It looks like Bill Clinton may be the education President we've been waiting for. He's promised to make education the focus of his economic strategy, and arrives in Washington with some concrete proposals for elementary, secondary, and higher education reform.

For elementary and secondary schools, Mr. Clinton is a proponent of the America 2000 goals set by George Bush and the nation's governors: children prepared to learn; a high-school-graduation rate of at least 90 percent; voluntary student-competency testing; U.S. leadership in science and mathematics; school environments conducive to learning; universal adult literacy; and school choice.

As Governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton was active in education reform, instituting a mandatory teacher-competency examination, an open-enrollment policy, curricular standards, and testing of 3rd and 6th graders. He also raised the state sales tax to finance smaller classes and higher teacher salaries.

During the campaign, Mr. Clinton got some mileage from his plan to revamp the federal college student-loan program. Two of his ideas stood out: tying repayment to income after graduation and allowing students to work in public service to pay off their debt. Both proposals would lighten the psychological load of incurring debt, and insure that graduates aren't scared away from less lucrative professions like teaching just to repay their loans. Who will pay? Mr. Clinton says his program will cost $8 billion a year, and expects that nearly half would come from money now lost to loan default.

All of these goals are worthy. But will Bill Clinton be able to put them in place?

The answer depends, in part, on how he gets along with Congress. Conventional political wisdom tells us that legislation is passed more easily when the President and the majority of Congress are members of the same party. Many Americans now expect the "gridlock'' of the Bush years to end. It may not be so simple.

Back in 1960, another young Democrat was elected by a narrow popular vote, with his party failing to increase its majority in Congress. John F. Kennedy wanted to make education the cornerstone of his Presidency. At the time, public-school-classroom construction hadn't kept pace with the "baby boom.'' President Kennedy tried to rally the nation around the issue of permanent federal support for education, proposing aid for school construction and teacher salaries.

But Kennedy's ideas were a dramatic departure from the traditional view that education was primarily a state and local matter. After his permanent-federal-support plan failed in the House Rules Committee, the President attempted to pass a new, temporary construction bill through the Democratic Congress. His efforts were so partisan, however, that he alienated the moderate and liberal Republicans whose support he needed to pass his legislation. As a result, his efforts were defeated in 1961.

Four years later, after his landslide election victory helped produce the largest legislative majority in the post-World War II era, another Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which had eluded John Kennedy. President Johnson's vigorous campaign for federal aid to education as a weapon in his "war on poverty'' persuaded moderates and liberals of both parties.

The lesson for President Clinton to learn from history is that a unified government will not be enough. Like Lyndon Johnson, he will have to imaginatively convince both the public and Congress that his education reforms are worth the billions of dollars they will cost. If Bill Clinton succeeds, unlike President Kennedy, he will deserve most of the credit. If he fails, he will deserve most of the blame. It's that simple.

Larry McAndrews, is the author of Broken Ground: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Education, and is an associate professor of history at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis.

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