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Published in Print: February 2, 2000, as Clinton Calls for Emphasis On Teachers

Clinton Calls for Emphasis On Teachers

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The teacher-quality initiative and other education proposals President Clinton unveiled in his State of the Union Address last week sounded popular themes that offer appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

But significant disagreements over how the federal government would implement the programs could prove to be the major stumbling block in whether the plans become law, some political players and observers said last week.

For More Information

Read the entire text of President Clinton's State of the Union Address, from the White House State of the Union Web site.

"These are a lot of things [in the president's speech] I would have said if I'd been giving the State of the Union Address," Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview. However, Mr. Goodling added, "after he presents his wish-list—the list to make everyone feel good—he has to come up with a budget and show how he can pay for all this."

Hoping to leave the White House with a strong legacy in education, President Clinton used his final State of the Union Address, delivered last Thursday, to announce a $1 billion initiative to enhance teacher quality.

Calling for a "21st-century revolution in education, guided by the faith that every child can learn," he asked Congress to approve big increases in education spending.

Among other specifics, Mr. Clinton proposed increases for after-school grants, Head Start, and Title I accountability. And he made a last-ditch appeal to Congress to approve a five-year, $5 billion school construction program, a proposal that lawmakers have debated for the past three years. ("Clinton Renews Call for Construction Funds," Jan. 12, 2000.)

Overall, Mr. Clinton emphasized expansion of many existing programs—a strategy he has found successful in recent years—over groundbreaking new proposals. His proposals are likely to play out in the debates over reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, and in the 2000 presidential and congressional campaigns.

"It may be our last year, but we're not sitting back and resting," said Michael Cohen, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "Education is going to be an important issue all year long."

'September Strategy'

In recent years, the White House has proved its strength in advancing its education agenda during the annual appropriations process.

President Clinton is "very good at September negotiating," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "He recognizes that his 'September strategy' every year has won."

For instance, Mr. Clinton's class-size-reduction initiative to hire 100,000 new teachers, proposed in his 1998 State of the Union Address, made its way into the budget during last-minute negotiations after being criticized or ignored by congressional Republicans in previous months.

Whether Mr. Clinton will be able to persuade Republicans in Congress to support his latest proposals, though, remains to be seen.

Many of his past State of the Union initiatives have met strong resistance from the GOP-led Congress. Proposals for new national tests and school construction aid have withered under controversy; in other cases, Republicans have picked up the administration's ideas and modified programs to meet their goals of flexibility and local control.

For instance, the 1997 America Reads initiative to recruit 100,000 volunteer tutors was restructured into the Reading Excellence Act, a program that focuses on better teacher training in literacy methods.

Joe Karpinski, the spokesman for GOP members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, downplayed the importance of last week's speech, and said Mr. Clinton has frequently abandoned previous State of the Union initiatives shortly after announcing them.

"It's a political device, not a legislative device," Mr. Karpinski said of the speech. "The president lists off a number of elements, then we see no real efforts to move those pieces."

More fundamentally, GOP lawmakers have long disagreed with the White House over the federal role in education, and many of the past initiatives have angered Republicans who want to see less federal involvement in shaping programs to meet districts' needs. While Republicans support ideas such as better teacher training, help for school construction, and after-school programs, Mr. Karpinski added, they believe the initiatives should be local priorities.

For More Information

Read the Republican response to the State of the Union address, by Sen. Susan Collins.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine emphasized that philosophy strongly in the official Republican response to Mr. Clinton's speech.

"Rather than Washington dictating to communities how they should run their schools, we should listen to those who know best: our parents, teachers, and local school boards," said Sen. Collins, who is a member of the HELP Committee.

Sen. Collins said Republicans also want to continue to increase federal funding, strengthen teacher quality, and help pay for higher education by expanding tax-free education savings accounts.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, expressed concern over the total price tag for the many proposals, including those for education, contained in Mr. Clinton's speech.

"This approach is misguided in my view because the American people's interests are best served when government is limited and taxes and spending are under control," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Cohen of the Education Department said he was unable to give a concrete estimate of how much the initiatives would cost. The value of the proposed higher education and school construction tax credits is difficult to calculate, and many of the initiatives will not be detailed until the administration's fiscal 2001 budget proposal is released next week, he said.

Teaching to High Standards

Nevertheless, the White House did put a price tag—of $1 billion—on its teacher-quality initiative, "Teaching to High Standards."

The plan would dovetail with the accountability provisions in the administration's Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization proposal, released last spring, which proponents hope Congress will pass this year.

The teacher-quality plan would expand the $335 million Eisenhower Professional Development Program to give grants to states and districts to fund high-quality, standards-based professional development for teachers.

Of the $1 billion, $240 million would be earmarked for specialized programs, including:

  • A $50 million initiative that would award grants to high-poverty school districts to help them attract and retain high-quality teachers through better pay and higher standards. It would use a peer-review system, modeled after experimental—and controversial—programs in Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio, to give merit raises.
  • Another $50 million for "Teacher Quality Rewards" for districts that have made exceptional progress in reducing the number of uncertified teachers and teachers teaching outside their subject areas.
  • A $75 million "Hometown Teacher Recruitment" plan that would help high-poverty school districts recruit new teachers, through programs such as mentoring middle and high school students and providing financial aid.
  • $25 million to expand the "Troops to Teachers" program that recruits midcareer professionals from the military and other fields to become teachers in high-need subject areas and high-need schools.
  • $40 million for a "School Leaders Initiative," designed to recruit, prepare, and provide professional development for superintendents, principals, and other school leaders through nonprofit partnerships.

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, predicted that many of those initiatives would be approved.

"There have been some differences [between the political parties' plans], but the basic agreement among everybody is that more needs to be done to ensure high-quality teachers," he said.

The 2.4-million member teachers' union applauded the teacher-quality initiative. NEA President Bob Chase urged Congress to "seize the day" and support Mr. Clinton's proposals.

One Democratic aide predicted that the themes of Mr. Clinton's speech, particularly teacher quality, would be received well in the Republican-led Congress.

"Teacher quality resonates very strongly," said Charles Barone, the legislative director for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has been a leading proponent of efforts to raise teacher quality in recent years.

Rep. Goodling agreed. He said President Clinton was "getting the message—we've been telling him all these years that the quality of teachers is important."

Vol. 19, Issue 21, Pages 1,29-31

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