Behind ‘Love’ of Clinton, Unease Over Policy

By Julie A. Miller — August 05, 1992 7 min read

“He says he wants to replace the whole student-aid program,’' Mr. Saunders said. “We certainly need more information about how it would work.’'

Mr. Clinton’s calls for more spending on programs like Head Start--and in particular his strong opposition to private-school choice, which Mr. Bush supports--have solidified the Arkansas Governor’s support among public educators.

“If there’s a perception that the education community is having a love affair with Bill Clinton, I don’t think that’s far from wrong,’' said Michael Casserly, the acting executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “Our folks have been impressed with what he’s said about education and with his track record in Arkansas that seems to back up that rhetoric.’'

On the other hand, Mr. Clinton also backs a national assessment system, as does President Bush, and that idea faces substantial resistance from key education groups.

“There’s a sense of expectation that he would be good for education because he is supportive of funding some traditional programs like Chapter 1,’' said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

“But some of us wonder if he would be as radical, as confrontational as he was with the teachers in Arkansas,’' Mr. Kealy said. “And our members are probably a little concerned about how much of a bug he has about national testing.’'

Moreover, Mr. Clinton’s plans for completely replacing current student-loan programs and committing the federal government to the goal of school-finance equity also are being eyed warily by educators.

Other elements of Mr. Clinton’s education platform include a federal initiative to help all adults earn a high-school equivalency certificate; a “national apprenticeship system’’ available to all students who did not attend college; and a shift in the Education Department’s mission to one of serving as a “national extension service’’ for good ideas.

Leveraging Equal Funding

One example of Mr. Clinton’s willingness to discuss radical education ideas came last month, when, in a little-noticed comment, he suggested using federal programs to encourage equalization of resources among school districts.

“I would try to leverage federal funds to support states that are trying to equalize funding,’' Mr. Clinton said at the National Education Association’s annual meeting. “As long as you have a property-tax base, it is impossible to totally equalize school funding, but the state and federal governments can make a difference.’'

Mr. Clinton also specifically mentioned using the federal Chapter 1 compensatory-education program for that purpose, echoing a proposal that was floated in April by an independent commission that is studying the program.

But Gloria Cabe, a campaign aide who has served as an education adviser to Mr. Clinton, said the candidate does not have a specific proposal in mind yet. “He’s trying to figure out what you can do at the federal level about what is essentially a state problem,’' she said.

While Chapter 1 and some other federal programs target aid to districts that serve low-income children, seeking to equalize district resources through federal action would be unprecedented. It would probably divide the education community.

When the idea was floated in 1990 by former Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who was chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, groups such as the American Association of School Administrators supported it. Organizations representing state officials attacked the proposal, however, and other groups avoided taking a position.

“I would say that from the federal level it would certainly be one very difficult fight,’' said Mr. Casserly.

Mobilizing Over Choice

But it is the issue of private-school choice that presents the sharpest difference between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush. Both sides have chosen to stress the topic in hopes of mobilizing key constituencies--and perhaps at the risk of alienating others.

Mr. Clinton supports choice only among public schools, and the Democratic platform specifically attacks Mr. Bush’s plan, under which low- and middle-income families would receive vouchers to spend at public or private schools.

“We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public-school system--the bedrock of democracy--through private-school vouchers,’' the platform says.

Mr. Clinton’s opposition to public funding for private schools is clearly an important reason for his enthusiastic support among public educators.

Teachers'-union leaders used the threat of vouchers draining money from public schools to rally their troops at last month’s Democratic convention, and every teacher delegate interviewed there cited opposition to vouchers as a reason for supporting Mr. Clinton.

The danger to Mr. Clinton is that his school-choice stand will anger Roman Catholic voters, who could be among the chief gainers from a program open to parochial schools.

Similarly, Mr. Bush in campaign appearances last month served notice that he would use his choice proposal to shore up his claim to be the candidate of “family values,’' please his conservative supporters, and paint himself as the champion of real change in the schools. (See story, page 35.)

But Mr. Bush’s emphasis of the issue may have its own cost, by spurring some Republican educators to switch sides this fall.

At the N.E.A. convention last month, Republican members drafted a paper opposing vouchers, which they plan to present at the Republican convention. Some of them said they would vote for Mr. Clinton, and Keith B. Geiger, the president of the N.E.A., claimed that G.O.P. support was key to the large margin by which the union endorsed the Governor.

The choice issue appears to be a factor influencing the candidate preferences of public-school administrators as well. “I would say Clinton is better received than the last three Democratic nominees,’' said Bruce Hunter, associate director of the A.A.S.A. “His education message is very well received.’'

Uneasy Over National Tests

The proposal that makes Mr. Clinton’s supporters among Washington education interest groups most nervous is one on which he and Mr. Bush agree: national standards and a national assessment system.

Some education organizations support the idea, most notably the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education. But many major groups--including the N.E.A., the National PTA, the N.S.B.A., and several organizations representing administrators--have expressed concern or outright opposition.

Many educators fear that a national testing system would lead to a de facto national curriculum that would strip them of autonomy and penalize teachers who work with disadvantaged students.

The N.E.A. convention approved a resolution flatly opposing government-mandated testing programs and condemning the use of tests to compare schools or school districts.

In an interview, Mr. Geiger tried to deflect an inquiry by contending that Mr. Clinton “doesn’t support a national testing system.’'

“He supports the whole idea of an assessment process and we support that, too,’' Mr. Geiger said.

Mr. Clinton does support establishment of a national testing system, however, and many educators are clearly uncomfortable about that.

Student-Loan Plan

Mr. Clinton also proposes replacing student-loan programs with a system under which any student could obtain a loan, regardless of income, and would repay it either with payroll deductions gauged to income or with two years of community service at low wages. One service option would be teaching.

When the Governor unveiled the idea last year while campaigning for the New Hampshire primary, some educators present at his campaign events complained that it could put unqualified people in classrooms.

But teachers who were delegates at the Democratic convention said they had no such reservations, and the leaders of both major unions said they supported the plan.

“I think we’ll get some high-quality people into teaching this way,’' Albert Shanker, the president of the A.F.T., said at a meeting with reporters. “We need to get away from the idea that one can only be a good teacher if one devotes one’s whole life to it. This isn’t the priesthood.’'

While there is currently no outright opposition to Mr. Clinton’s aid plan, observers agreed that there could be if he is elected and the proposal is fleshed out in legislation.

Charles Saunders, the director of governmental relations for the American Council on Education, said the organization “has no problem with the concept’’ of payroll deductions or serviced-based loan forgiveness. But higher-education lobbyists need more information to assess the Clinton plan, he added.

“He says he wants to replace the whole student-aid program,’' Mr. Saunders said. “We certainly need more information about how it would work.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Behind ‘Love’ of Clinton, Unease Over Policy