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Goodling Seeks To Reshape Education Debate

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Washington

In an effort to send two different messages to the increasingly antagonistic factions of his committee, the chairman of the House education panel last week opened the second session of the 104th Congress with a hearing on successful public schools.

Public education has been "unfairly under attack," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., as he convened the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee in an effort to influence the way both Republicans and Democrats approach the debate over public schooling.

At the end of the four-hour session, the chairman said he thought he had accomplished one of his goals: to convince the panel's Democrats that schools work best when they are freed from state and federal regulations and that federal programs should strive to support excellence as well as educational access.

But Mr. Goodling said he may not have gotten through to members of his own party, some of whom, he said, have a lot to learn about the importance of public schools.

"The second [reason for the hearing] is to get the majority to understand that there are a lot of good things going on in public education," Mr. Goodling said. "I wasn't so successful on that count, as you can see. Didn't get many here; didn't get many to stay."

Mr. Goodling, a former public school teacher and administrator, has often had to balance his personal views about education with those of more conservative members of his committee.

Balancing Act

As a moderate, he is also a bit of an anomaly among the GOP committee chairmen, and some observers had wondered whether Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., would even allow him to ascend to the chairmanship. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

In an interview after the hearing, Mr. Goodling declined to specify who he saw as critics of public education. But he said some critics too often dismiss poor schools without trying to understand why they are unsuccessful.

He said he will take into consideration the testimony of the day's 10 witnesses when crafting a package of school-reform legislation to be introduced this spring. Aides have said it may propose consolidating some programs into block grants, which give states or districts lump-sum payments with relatively few strings attached. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

"We don't know what direction we're going. We're just putting together a package of reforms that will make the federal role less intrusive and more supportive" of local schools and communities, Mr. Goodling said.

Testimony

Among other themes, the parents, state and local school officials, and others offering testimony last week cited parent and community involvement, local flexibility to implement innovations, and rigorous academic standards as critical components of successful schools.

Most also advocated continued federal funding of education programs, to the delight of committee Democrats.

Christopher Atchison of West Sand Lake, N.Y., said the Even Start family-literacy program, which spurred him to pass the General Educational Development test, and federal financial aid, which helped him pay for college, not only turned his life around but allowed him to be an example for his three daughters.

"The return on the investment that was put in me goes far beyond me," he said.

But Frank Brogan, Florida's education commissioner, who said his state is considering such ideas as public school choice, charter schools, and vouchers, said the federal government could help schools most effectively with block grants.

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