Clinton Links K-12 Dollars, Performance

By Joetta L. Sack — January 27, 1999 7 min read

President Clinton unveiled a multifaceted school accountability plan last week that quickly elicited both praise and skepticism for its high goals and broad reach.

In his closely watched State of the Union Address, Mr. Clinton announced a five-point plan that would require school districts to take certain steps toward improving their practices in order to receive federal funding.

“We must change the way we invest that money, to support what works and to stop supporting what does not work,” Mr. Clinton said in the speech he gave Jan. 19, the same day his lawyers began mounting a defense in his impeachment trial in the Senate.

Policymakers began debating last week whether the president’s education proposal was feasible and if it represented a sharp departure from the Department of Education’s primary role--targeting aid to help needy students--to a new level of setting policy Washington-style.

“It is a landmark shift,” said Andrew Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools Project of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council once chaired by Mr. Clinton. “For too long, we’ve had accounting without accountability.”

President Clinton’s accountability plan has attractive goals by both liberal and conservative standards: It seeks to end social promotion of academically unready students, turn around or shut down low-performing schools, put well-trained teachers in classrooms, institute school report cards, and strengthen discipline to keep schools safe.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress, the president also reiterated plans to help schools hire 100,000 new teachers over seven years, triple funding for after-school programs to $600 million, and create new federally subsidized bonds for school construction and repair.

Later in the week, he announced details of a teacher-quality initiative designed to, among other aims, encourage teachers to take jobs in high-need urban, rural, and Indian districts. Most of his initiatives will be wrapped into legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

The emphasis on accountability and high standards garnered praise from conservatives last week. But many voiced concern that Mr. Clinton’s plan would add bureaucracy--and that worry may make it a tough sell with the Republican-led Congress.

“These are some of the most micromanaging initiatives that the country’s ever seen,” said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “It’s hard to know exactly what he’s talking about.”

Close Scrutiny

The centerpiece of Mr. Clinton’s State of the Union education agenda was his proposed Education Accountability Act, which would require school districts to address five issues in order to receive federal funds. His proposal would mandate, among other things, that districts end social promotions of students not academically ready to advance to the next grade and turn around their lowest-performing schools or close them. To ensure teacher quality, Mr. Clinton also wants states and districts to require that teachers are certified, pass performance exams, and have a college major or minor in the subjects they teach. The Education Department is working on plans for monitoring state and district efforts.

In a four-page statement on Mr. Clinton’s speech, Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House education committee, promised to put the proposal under the microscope to make sure it does not add bureaucracy or encroach on local control.

“After six years of trying to get the president to talk about the need to bring quality into existing federal programs--rather than just talk of spending more money to cover children with mediocrity--I am pleased to see that he has started to stress accountability in existing programs,” he said.

In the formal Republican response to Mr. Clinton’s address, two lawmakers emphasized the gop’s longtime themes of local control and no-strings-attached federal funding. “We want the most important election in a child’s education to be the one that decides who sits on a school board, not who to send to Washington,” said Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, who delivered the GOP response along with Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington.

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bush, expressed doubt that the Education Department would be equipped to make Mr. Clinton’s plan feasible.

“What the department does is dispense money; it doesn’t make decisions about standards,” Ms. Ravitch, now an education research professor at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview.

“I support the president’s concerns for standards, but worry about the capacity of the Department of Education to do the types of monitoring that would be needed,” she said. “It has neither the capacity nor the staff to do the monitoring.”

The department, which now has a staff of 4,900, would need to hire new employees, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley acknowledged in a briefing last week. The plan would also include a $200 million increase under Title I to help districts identify poor-performing schools and then turn them around or shut them down.

“We’re going to get into a very healthy discussion of how we can get more serious about public schools, how we can help them do a better job,” Mr. Riley said of the ESEA reauthorization.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith played down the notion that Mr. Clinton was trying to take federal policy in a new direction.

He noted that many federal programs already have an accountability component, and that the new plan would target many schools that are already involved in state improvement plans. “An awful lot of this is focused, and is not for schools that are doing well already,” Mr. Smith said last week.

For many conservatives and Republicans, however, the plan represents an attempt to send more power and control to the federal government.

“The federal government has no business hiring teachers, setting their qualifications, and ordering them what to do,” former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said in a written statement released to the press. “What the president is proposing is a national school board,” added Mr. Alexander, a past GOP presidential candidate who has taken the first step toward another run in 2000.

State, Local Questions

Several state leaders voiced concern that the president’s plan would diminish or duplicate their responsibilities. Mr. Riley noted that 48 states already have accountability systems, and some state officials used that fact to argue last week that a new federal policy is unnecessary.

“Any time the federal government attaches strings to education dollars, it’s unwarranted intervention,” Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, said at a press conference on Jan. 20. “The best thing to do is to block-grant the education dollars to states and let the states spend the money as they see fit.”

While many state education officials agree that districts and schools need to work to end social promotion and boost standards for teachers, some argue that specific policy decisions should not be made at the federal level.

“The decision of whether to hold back a child is a decision that must be made at the local level by teachers and parents. To even put it in state hands would be catastrophic,” said Patricia Likens, a spokeswoman for Arizona Superintendent of Education Lisa Graham Keegan, a Republican who has fought for vouchers and more local control. President Clinton “needs to realize that states are already doing these things,” Ms. Likens said.

Still, some state leaders welcomed Mr. Clinton’s emphasis on accountability.

“We would appreciate any help we could get from the federal level,” said Paul D. Stapleton, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction.

Other programs, such as Mr. Clinton’s Goals 2000 initiative, have been used successfully to nudge states to accelerate their reform efforts and craft better standards, said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former aide to House Democrats.

But some school administrators sounded worried that the administration’s agenda, while popular with voters, would be unrealistic for schools with high populations of disadvantaged students.

“The schools that I have been associated with are willing to be held accountable for those things that they can be held accountable for,” said John Richardson, the principal of the 560-student Sunnyslope Elementary School in Port Orchard, Wash. “But so many things are not within the control of the school. We get children in whatever shape they are in when they arrive.”

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said his group, a coalition of urban districts, was anxious to study the details of Mr. Clinton’s plan. “Most urban districts are already embracing that movement, but there’s always room for additional accountability.”

Staff Writer Jessica L. Sandham and Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as Clinton Links K-12 Dollars, Performance