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Goals 2000 Column Item Stirs the Political Pot

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President Clinton reportedly told a columnist recently that he is not entirely pleased with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the school-reform program that forms the heart of his administration's education agenda.

In his nationally syndicated column, Ben Wattenberg said last week that Mr. Clinton had called him to discuss Mr. Wattenberg's new book, Values Matter Most.

"He agreed with my analysis in the book that his education plan, Goals 2000, started out as a fine piece of work, but didn't end up that way," wrote Mr. Wattenberg, a conservative Democrat.

The Goals 2000 program provides grants to states and school districts to draft and implement reform plans based on challenging academic standards and accompanying assessments that states must agree to establish.

Administration officials said Mr. Wattenberg's column--which also dealt with Mr. Clinton's views on other issues--reduced a detailed conversation on Goals 2000 into a paragraph that does not reflect the full range or context of the president's remarks.

"There were very nuanced discussions of policy in which the president was making a much larger set of arguments, and they've been truncated here," White House spokesman Michael D. McCurry told reporters.

"The president, for example, on Goals 2000, specifically said that was a discussion more about the introduction of Secretary [of Education Richard W.] Riley's initial bill, which focused much more on outputs as they would be measured," Mr. McCurry said. "The president said certainly that bill was strong as it initially was introduced, but what came out was a very good bill and was well worth fighting for and is well worth continuing to fight for."

Compromise Strategy

In his book, published by the Free Press, Mr. Wattenberg criticizes the president for agreeing to include in the Goals 2000 law language calling on states to set so-called "opportunity to learn" standards. He also says the administration capitulated by agreeing to include language allowing states to use the new tests for "high stakes" purposes only after the law expired.

The administration's strategy of compromise, Mr. Wattenberg writes in the book, "tended to give the most liberal group of congressional Democrats not only veto power over a Clinton proposal, but shaping power as well."

Indeed, liberal House Democrats said they would refuse to support the bill if opportunity standards were not added. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

But Michael Cohen, a counselor to Secretary Riley and the chief architect of Goals 2000, said last week that Mr. Wattenberg "basically got it wrong."

Mr. Cohen acknowledged that the administration would have preferred not to have opportunity standards in the Goals 2000 law. But he noted that the final version made the standards it calls for nonbinding and allowed states to set "standards or strategies."

In addition, only assessments certified by the National Education Standards and Improvement Council are not to be used for high-stakes purposes under Goals 2000, Mr. Cohen said, and NESIC is all but defunct.

"Even assessments developed with Goals 2000 funds can be used for high-stakes testing tomorrow," he said.

Political Fallout?

It is too early to determine how much political fallout may result from the president's reported remarks. But Goals 2000 is already controversial, as it typifies for many critics the kind of federal involvement in education they oppose.

"How this is going to play out, I don't know," Mr. Cohen said. "I suspect it depends on the coverage."

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which promotes such ideas as vouchers and privatization, said: "It was savvy politically to acknowledge there are problems with Goals 2000."

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