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Clinton's 100 Days in Education

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In his campaign handbook, Putting People First: How We Can All Change America, Bill Clinton the candidate promised "a real education-reform package'' in the first 100 days of his Administration.

And during his campaign, candidate Bill Clinton spoke often of how he "spent more than 11 years as governor on the front lines of the battle to revolutionize, revitalize, and reform education,'' the issue to which he had "devoted [more] time ... and energy ... than to any other issue.''

So President Bill Clinton--the candidate of change, the "new'' Democrat--had an opening to do something different: Rather than proposing more money for more of the same--the "traditional'' Democratic approach--he could be bold. Why not propose more money (a commitment he had to keep) for something radically different? He could submit to Congress a reform package that would transform American education, change it in a radical way.

But what he and his education team did in their "goals 2000: educate America act'' is what we've come to expect from the business-as-usual crowd--the Democrats and their education lobbyists: more of the same old formulas that give education bureaucrats the maximum amount of money for the least amount of change.

For those in communities working to transform education, who know only radical change can create the best schools in the world for all our children, President Clinton is a big disappointment.

What President Clinton and the business-as-usual crowd don't know how to respond to in a bold and radical way is what most parents and community members across this country sense: the fact that our schools are in a time warp.

The world has changed, our country has changed, families have changed, dramatically. But our schools haven't kept pace with these changes. An 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. day for nine months a year with one teacher lecturing most of the time using little more than the technology of the book doesn't fit the needs of most children growing up today.

These schools stymie and frustrate teachers, bore children, and, according to a Carnegie Foundation report, leave 28 percent of public school parents wanting to enroll their children in a school other than the one they're attending.

Into this situation could have walked a bold President who challenged the business-as-usual crowd--the ones who want the maximum amount of money for the least amount of change--a President who:

  • Was unqualified in supporting one set of voluntary national world-class education standards in basic subjects defining what we expect all our children to know and do so they can live and work in the 21st century.
  • Was decisive in calling for the rapid development of a national exam system geared to those standards.
  • Was daring in inviting the genius and creativity of the private sector to help communities across this nation create thousands of new break-the-mold schools that would be the best in the world for all our children.
  • Was outspoken in his desire to get the government off teachers' backs by cutting federal red tape that frustrates them and serves no good educational purpose.
  • Was visionary in giving middle- and low-income parents consumer power in the form of federal scholarship dollars that they could use to send their children to any lawfully operating school that meets their needs--public, private, or religious--just as President Clinton did as a child, his daughter does now, and the children of many wealthy parents do now.

But instead of embracing radical change, what happened?

Several weeks ago, President Clinton's education team was ready to submit its education-reform package to Congress. They pulled it back at the last moment because House Democrats and education lobbyists objected to it.

Why?

They didn't like its strong support for and commitment to developing world-class national education standards, both content standards (what our children should know and do) and performance standards (what level of learning and achievement is good enough).

What happens next? President Clinton's Goals 2000 act proposes national delivery standards to measure resources in schools, districts, and states. This makes House Democrats and their business-as-usual friends happy. It means more money for more of the same.

But it will work to undermine the fragile consensus reached by Democratic and Republican governors: National focus should be on creating world-class standards of achievement and a national exam system to measure outcomes.

Next, he wants to create a new "federal standards and improvement council''--beltway talk for a national school board to certify content, performance, delivery standards, and assessments. What is likely to be the result here?

The council would expand federal control of education by imposing more federal red tape on teachers and communities. Further, its activities would lead to more federal and state programs that do nothing but give education bureaucrats the most amount of money for the least amount of real change.

Ironically, the council would have no authority in one area: It would be banned from certifying any exams that could be used to make decisions about student promotion or graduation. The effect would be to block the development of any meaningful national examination system, again undermining the governors.

President Clinton further proposes to continue government monopoly of running schools by saying that only parents who choose to send their children to public schools should get government money.

Two other proposals are not part of the Goals 2000 package.

The President would increase dramatically funding for Head Start as it now exists. He does this just as a consensus is emerging among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners of nearly all persuasions that the reputation of Head Start may vastly outrun the reality. How strange from a President who promised change.

Finally, President Clinton retreats from a major campaign promise to create a national-service program allowing all college students to repay federal loans with community service. The "demonstration'' program he substitutes would be available in four years, but only to 150,000 of the 15 million college students we have.

Mr. Clinton and his education team have retreated, opted for the status quo, and come to support the business-as-usual crowd in education--the crowd that controls the schools, likes them the way they are, and thinks a good education program is the most amount of money for the least amount of change.

At the end of his first 100 days in education, what's obvious is that President Clinton missed a chance for real change. He's become just another Washington insider.

That's disappointing, since that approach won't help those working in communities across this country to transform education in a radical way and create the best schools in the world for all our children.

Bruno V. Manno, the former U.S. assistant secretary of education for policy and planning, is an education consultant working in the Washington office of the Hudson Institute.

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