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Administration Beats Drum For Education

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In dozens of speeches and appearances over the past two months, President Clinton has stressed the importance of education to a successful middle class and to a buoyant national economy.

The campaign-like flavor of many of Mr. Clinton's appearances and remarks may reflect both the jeopardy some of his education initiatives face in the Republican-controlled Congress and his attempt to use education issues to build public support for his agenda and his Administration.

The proposed 1996 federal budget Mr. Clinton unveiled last week aims to advance this effort. It largely spares education from cuts and seeks big increases for certain programs.

Mr. Clinton's primary focus has been on his proposed "Middle Class Bill of Rights," which has been pitched as an effort to help middle-income parents saving for their children's college educations and dislocated workers interested in retraining.

The President also has been touting what he calls his "lifelong learning" agenda, in an effort to focus attention on a string of legislative accomplishments that includes the expansion of Head Start, the standards-based school-reform strategy embodied in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and student-loan reforms.

"You'll be hearing a fair amount about this agenda in the weeks to come," William A. Galston, a deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy, said recently.

Some members of the education community here praise the President's emphasis on education and training. But some continue to question his financial commitment to education programs, noting that the most significant education increases Mr. Clinton proposed for fiscal 1996 are for his own initiatives. In addition, some education advocates remain skeptical of the plan to provide tax breaks for college tuition.

With his chances for re-election next year seen as uncertain, Mr. Clinton may be hoping that these themes will help him regain the support of the disaffected middle class that helped make him the 42nd President, some observers speculate.

"[The Administration's] judgment is this is where they can make a difference to the middle class," said Charles O. Jones, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"They believe they've been doing great things all along, and the [midterm] election was quite a jolt," he continued. "So they've backed up...and tried to knit together what all of this has meant."

"Compared to what they were doing before the election, at least they have a consistent message that they're using," Mr. Jones said, "and education is clearly a very important part of that message."

Challenging Months Ahead

Mr. Clinton was expected to reinforce that message in a speech to the American Council on Education scheduled for this week in San Francisco.

The President also was expected to plug his proposed budget for K-12 and higher education, which includes dramatic increases for programs such as Goals 2000, national service, and direct lending. Mr. Clinton has promoted these increases in recent weeks while also pledging tax and spending cuts and the downsizing of several federal agencies.

"My budget cuts spending, cuts taxes, cuts the deficit, and does not cut education or Social Security or Medicare. That is a good budget," Mr. Clinton said at a White House briefing last week.

Mr. Clinton's recent emphasis on education also serves as a high-profile defense of his priority programs, some of which have come under attack since the Republicans took control of Congress.

Indeed, Administration officials are bracing for a fight over education spending, and even the future of the Education Department.

"We will be spending dual time out in the communities and states, as well as here, pushing the education agenda," said Terry Peterson, a counselor to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "We have a challenging few months before us."

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said, however, that the President has been so reactive to the Republican Congress that it will be difficult to withstand the G.O.P.'s education initiatives.

"I don't see how he can resist major block grants in education if he goes along with them in such fields as job training, welfare, child nutrition, and so on," he said. "The President's rhetoric on this is he's going along with it, or he's willing to negotiate it."

Mixed Opinion

Moreover, the Administration continues to receive mixed marks from education observers here.

Representatives of higher education offer only tepid support for the Middle Class Bill of Rights, which would allow middle-income families to save up to $2,000 tax free for higher-education expenses and to deduct up to $10,000 annually for those expenses.

"This should have been the first idea in a brainstorming session that is modified before it gets out," said Barmak Nassirian, the assistant director for federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He argued that few lower- and middle-class families would be able to amass the kind of savings that would allow them to take advantage of the proposal.

Sarah Flanagan, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities' vice president for government relations, said the proposal provides a good incentive for families to save and could reduce students' debt burdens. But she also said that because displaced workers could become eligible for student loans under the plan, student access to loans could be compromised.

Meanwhile, Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said Mr. Clinton's education rhetoric resembles that of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, whom lobbyists here felt did not back up their words with enough money.

Mr. Hunter's refrain has been a familiar one among lobbyists who expected a President who was known for his work on education issues as the Governor of Arkansas to offer more than modest increases in federal education spending.

But others say the President's recent remarks are a good sign.

"Education and labor policy writ large is at the core of what this Administration stands for," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, who served as an assistant secretary of education in the Bush Administration. "They have drawn a line in the sand."

"The President is trying to help the Congress and the nation understand that you have to have a continuous learning system," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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