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Clinton Casts Education in Starring Role

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In the first two years of the Clinton administration, Department of Education officials had a hard time catching the ear of the White House.

President Clinton took part in just three high-profile education events in the first half of his term: a speech here on his "lifelong learning" agenda in February 1994, a signing ceremony in San Diego for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act a month later, and another bill-signing ceremony later that fall in Massachusetts.

"They absolutely weren't interested," one former department aide recalled recently. "You couldn't get them to talk about education, and by extension, the president."

Now, however, the White House is singing a different tune.

Criss-crossing the country campaigning for a second term, Mr. Clinton barely finishes the customary thank-yous to local dignitaries before launching into his plans for education.

He has unleashed a torrent of education proposals and initiatives that mostly address two of the public's strongest concerns--paying for college and school safety and discipline.

Why the dramatic change on Pennsylvania Avenue?

According to current and former White House and Education Department officials, it is due to a confluence of factors rather than a single catalyst.

Stinging losses to Republicans in the 1994 elections and the subsequent battle over the federal budget gave the president and Congressional Democrats a platform to use issues like education to redefine themselves.

Opinion polling revealed public anxiety over education to be at an all-time high. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley kept going to bat for a greater focus on education. And political adviser Dick Morris emphasized a strategy to appeal to uncommitted middle-class voters, particularly women, to reposition Mr. Clinton at the political center.

"I'd call it an evolution," said Madeleine M. Kunin, Mr. Clinton's former deputy secretary of education, who is now the ambassador to Switzerland. "The president had always been interested in education. What changed was how important it was to the president to use the bully pulpit."

Budget Battle

After the 1994 elections Mr. Clinton understandably underwent a bit of soul-searching.

In its first two years, the administration spent a great deal of its time pushing a reform of the nation's health-care system that ultimately failed, winning a compromise on military service for homosexuals, struggling to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, and barely gaining majorities on a deficit-reduction plan.

At the same time, its education agenda was moving--successfully, if not effortlessly--through Congress. But that agenda, encompassing legislation on school standards, national service, direct lending for college students, school-to-work programs, and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, moved ahead without fanfare.

"The education agenda, while it was always substantive, was politically obscured by a series of high-profile fights," said William A. Galston, a former White House domestic-policy adviser.

Mr. Clinton, acknowledging the midterm election results as a rebuke to his administration, began behind-the-scenes conversations with Mr. Morris, his on-again, off-again political guru who helped him resurrect his political career in Arkansas after losing a governor's race there.

Meanwhile, grabbing the reins of power on Capitol Hill, Republicans pledged to abolish the Education Department and slash federal education spending. Many of the 73 GOP House freshmen felt there should be no federal role in education.

But in the spring of 1995, the president, who had made his reputation as the governor of Arkansas in large part on education reform, gambled that it could help him again. He introduced a budget that he said "cuts a lot, but protects education, veterans, Social Security, and Medicare."

The budget included a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition. The proposal was not enacted, but it allowed Mr. Clinton to show sympathy for parents who are trying to keep up with rising college costs.

"Middle-income Americans are getting hit harder, especially in higher education," Secretary Riley said recently. The department began working on other avenues to help people pay for college.

In March of last year, The Wall Street Journal released a poll showing that the public agreed with the new GOP Congress on most of its budget-cutting agenda. But a vast majority disagreed with the Republican proposal to eliminate the Education Department. ("Polls Confirm Key Role of Education in Political Arena," June 19, 1996.)

By late in the year, other polls confirmed the sentiment toward education.

And when a standoff between the White House and Congress over the broader budget measure prompted two temporary government shutdowns, the public blamed the Republicans.

Riley's Role

Throughout 1995, two of Mr. Clinton's most influential confidants were at work in the shadows. Mr. Clinton got to know Secretary Riley while they both were governors in the mid-1980's.

He tapped the former South Carolina chief executive to head his transition team, and so much admired his fellow lawyer that he asked Mr. Riley to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, sources said.

Mr. Riley declined the offer, preferring his position at the Education Department. Two years into the job, the department's legislative priorities had been wrapped up, and Mr. Riley began looking at issues beyond Capitol Hill.

Among other steps, the education secretary brought together representatives of education and religious groups to find common ground on such contentious issues as outcomes-based education and school prayer.

It was a low-key effort that ultimately produced a vague policy statement. But at a time of tremendous divisiveness, Mr. Riley helped keep two sparring factions--public school educators and religious conservatives--in touch.

Similarly, Mr. Riley was pressing Mr. Clinton and his advisers to talk more often about values and citizenship--issues of common ground. In doing so, the secretary was also urging a more prominent role for education.

"You can't talk about education without thinking about values," Mr. Riley said this fall.

Mr. Clinton gave a series of "common ground" speeches in the summer of 1995, including one--over the objection of some White House and Education Department officials--in which he declared that the "First Amendment does not ... convert schools into religious-free zones."

The speech, said an adviser to Secretary Riley, "was a critical turning point ... where the secretary helps give the president an opportunity to express himself on a values issue."

"It gave the president a model of how to articulate his values, show leadership, and reframe an issue," the adviser said.

President Clinton ordered Mr. Riley to distribute to every school district guidelines on religious activities in public schools that education officials had prepared along with the Department of Justice.

At a time of tight budgets and public skepticism of government, the guidelines served as an activist but economical means of governing and provided a model for what has become a laundry list of election-year initiatives.

"The president liked what we were doing in that regard," Mr. Riley said of the religious guidelines. "He expressed to me in different ways and on different occasions that that was a good use of my time and my leadership."

At the same time, Mr. Morris, who had been a campaign consultant to such conservative Republicans as Sens. Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, was urging the president to rise above the partisan acrimony that characterized his budget battle with Congress.

The Tactician

Mr. Morris, who resigned from the president's re-election campaign in August after reports of a relationship with a prostitute, declined to comment for this story, citing a confidentiality agreement with a book publisher.

But one informal White House adviser said Mr. Morris urged the president to portray himself as working on solutions to everyday problems and to make policy decisions understandable to the broader public.

"Morris has had a really significant role in this whole process," the source said. "He was really good at merging the world of policy and politics."

At about the same time that Mr. Riley was pushing on the values and citizenship front, word went out from Mr. Morris through the White House to look for middle-ground issues in all areas of government that the president could cite as he prepared his re-election bid.

Mr. Morris, said one former Education Department aide, would arrive at the department unscheduled to solicit policy ideas and discuss political strategy.

"He started coming around, and he would not be on calendars," the former aide said. "That was when the White House started paying attention to education and putting education into the president's speeches and on his schedule."

Mr. Riley confirmed the presence of Mr. Morris.

"The president had already decided to make education a priority. It was a question of what he would specifically talk about for his vision over the next four years," Mr. Riley said.

"I saw [Dick Morris] as more of a tactician."

What Mr. Riley and other administration officials had seen as good policy became good politics. And Mr. Morris helped President Clinton shape the policy for public consumption.

"Look at what the polls show. [Voters who are] married with two kids want all this education stuff. That's what's important to them," said one former administration official.

'A Real Difference'

In unveiling a spate of election-year education initiatives, President Clinton is following the time-honored tactic of using the power of the presidency to help drive an election campaign.

"A president has every right to formulate new proposals," said Thomas E. Mann, the director of governmental studies at the centrist Brookings Institution here. "This is one of the areas where you can't separate the political from the governing aspect."

The president recently ordered the Education Department to distribute "do it yourself" manuals--similar to the ones on religion in schools--that help local school officials navigate thorny questions of uniforms in public schools and consider strategies to combat teenage truancy. He has also endorsed the idea of curfews for teens and curbs on tobacco advertising he says targets young people.

He has proposed new spending on school construction and a volunteer "reading corps."

In higher education, Mr. Clinton has proposed a tax credit of up to $1,500 for college tuition expenses, a $10,000-per-family tax deduction for similar purposes, merit scholarships of $1,000 for the nation's brightest students, and a matching scholarship of $500 for students involved in community service.

In tackling school discipline and college affordability most visibly, the president has chosen two education issues that reach voters in ways others do not, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

"One of the problems education presents as an issue is everyone wants better education, but how you present a plan to improve it is difficult," Mr. Mellman said. Discipline and affordability, he added, "are areas where you can do something about it."

Mr. Clinton's proposals "make a real difference in people's lives and they're really achievable, as opposed to some broad-based program to improve standards without a plan to make it happen," Mr. Mellman said.

Some Republicans say Mr. Clinton is simply using the Education Department to help run his re-election campaign.

"These initiatives have one purpose and that is presidential politics," said Bill Hansen, a former Education Department official under President Bush. "When the president has yet to send up legislation ... it gives the true nature of what these proposals are about."

But Mr. Riley said the president is exercising leadership--and perhaps smartly making up for lost time.

"The president has to use his office in a leadership way to try to encourage people to be more interested in their children's education, to be more interested in their children's reading ability, to be more interested in their children's discipline, and those kinds of things you can't impose through laws," Mr. Riley said. "Those are ways the president talks about his vision."

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