On Campaign Trail, Clinton Touts Education Bills
Buoyed by news articles and editorials noting passage of his education agenda, President Clinton came here last week to sign a major school-aid bill and praise the lawmakers who shepherded a series of education measures through the 103rd Congress.
In particular, the signing ceremony for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization at Framingham High School was one of several visits in the Boston area designed to provide an election-year boost to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. (See related story.)
But Mr. Clinton used the education legislation, dubbed the Improving America's Schools Act, as a vehicle to praise members of both parties and point out to a skeptical electorate--which has witnessed the disintegration of such Administration initiatives as health-care and campaign-finance reform--that the White House and Congress are not always paralyzed by partisanship.
"You hear a lot about all the fights that go on in Washington and that things don't get done," Mr. Clinton said to more than 1,000 students and educators at the high school gymnasium. "We really did write new ideas into the law, and we did it in a bipartisan way."
In his speech, the President reiterated an old theme, calling for "lifelong learning" to maintain a high level of economic productivity.
A Rare Success Story
But with the Nov. 8 election looming, Mr. Clinton was clearly trying to reap political benefits from his successes in education policy--only a week after Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called on politicians not to make education a partisan issue.
Education "is one set of programs where they got a fair amount done and that you can localize," said Charles O. Jones, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution. "It helps to resolve a real dilemma for Clinton in a mid-term election."
Other observers, however, questioned the political benefit of highlighting federal action in an area long considered a state and local matter, and said Administration officials had only Mr. Kennedy in mind when they located the E.S.E.A. ceremony in Massachusetts.
"I have not seen a race this cycle where differing views of education or government's role in education" will be the key or swing factor, said Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report.
Congress passed five education bills in the past two years--the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the E.S.E.A. reauthorization, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, the National Service Trust Act, and the Student Loan Reform Act. Legislation on safe schools, education technology, and education research were incorporated into those other bills. In addition, Congress reauthorized and expanded the Head Start program.
The larger measures are part of a broader "human capital" domestic strategy designed to prepare workers for a rapidly changing global economy.
One adviser to the President said the recognition these programs have received in recent weeks from such major daily newspapers as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times has provided a boost for the White House.
"There's a drum beat, and clearly what the President has done in education is getting noticed," said William A. Galston, the deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy, adding that he might return to the theme. "There's no reason to believe he won't try and capitalize on it."
President Clinton plans to travel to the Middle East this week--highlighting his foreign-policy role--but may return for the final days of the campaign season.
Back to the Bully Pulpit?
Mr. Clinton's remarks were his first comprehensive statements on education since a February speech to the American Council on Education, in which he outlined his "lifelong-learning agenda." (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)
That speech was his only major address on education, and he has been criticized by some educators for keeping a low profile on an issue he championed as governor of Arkansas.
Since President Clinton took office, education "clearly [has been] at the bottom of the domestic agenda," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Nothing [has] had a lower profile than education."
But Gordon Ambach, the executive director of the Council of the Chief State School Officers, noted that Administration officials had worked doggedly to insure passage of the education bills instead of giving speeches.
"There were a lot of pieces of legislation in which the bully pulpit was used in the last few years that are dead," Mr. Ambach said. "Now, the President and the Secretary are in a perfect position to use the bully pulpit to actually work with localities and states."
In Framingham, in addition to touting the new education laws, Mr. Clinton said schools and the nation face "significant challenges" in implementing them; replicating successful reforms; overcoming such differences as race, religion, and economic status; and helping schools cope with responsibilities that come with being a "home away from home."
He called on young people to help disadvantaged students learn to the high standards expected of other students, and said "we ought to applaud" teachers who seek to instill in students such "character" traits as responsibility and compassion.
A few students clapped derisively when he expressed concern over a related problem--increasing drug use among young people.
"I hope you're applauding because you agree with me, not because you agree it's a good thing," Mr. Clinton said to them.
But others reassured him by cheering loudly after he called all illegal drugs "dangerous."