Romer Targets Federal Deficit as Governors’ '#1 Priority’

By Harrison Donnelly & Lynn Olson — September 09, 1992 4 min read

But Mr. Whittle responded that his schools would tackle the same problems facing the public schools.

Speaking at the group’s annual meeting here last month, Mr. Romer said governors should make cutting the deficit, currently running at over $300 billion a year, their “number-one priority.’'

The deficit is a “rockslide’’ threatening state government as well as the nation’s overall economy, Governor Romer warned.

“It’s time to deal with the deficit,’' he said. “And as we do, the governors need to be at the table.’'

To begin the campaign, Mr. Romer proposed that the governors meet in coming months to develop a plan for eliminating the deficit within five years.

But Governor Romer also suggested that agreeing on the specifics of a deficit-reduction program would only be the first step.

“The problem is not how to do it,’' he said. “The problem is the political will.’'

Strategic Investments

Although it put top priority on deficit reduction, the “strategic investments’’ program unveiled by Mr. Romer here also placed heavy emphasis on restructuring education.

Arguing that “the time has passed for incremental change,’' the Governor announced creation of a task force on education that will focus on ideas for fundamentally redesigning the schools.

The panel will be chaired by Mr. Romer and Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio.

The task force plans to urge states to take part in a “gap analysis’’ aimed at identifying the policy changes needed to achieve the national education goals. The panel also will seek to help states “move from piecemeal changes to specific blueprints’’ for restructuring, according to a press release.

Another goal of the panel will be to encourage adoption of content and performance standards for education.

In another education-related action, Mr. Romer selected Gov. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, to chair the National Education Goals Panel in 1992-93. The panel was created by the N.G.A. and the Bush Administration two years ago to report annual progress toward meeting the six national education goals.

Mr. Nelson, who joined the panel in March, succeeds Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina as chairman.

Gov. John Ashcroft of Missouri, whose term as Governor expires in January, resigned from the panel last month. He will be succeeded on the goals panel by Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine.

Teaching Board Compromise

Meeting last month as the Presidential campaign moved into high gear, the governors seemed intent on staying away from controversy and partisanship.

One example of the urge to avoid conflict came on a resolution by Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, pledging “active support and assistance’’ for the board’s efforts to set high and rigorous standards for teachers.

That stand troubled Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who expressed concerns that the work of the standards board would interfere with state efforts to provide alternative certification for teachers who come through nontraditional routes.

Mr. Branstad said the board’s work is designed to “complement and strengthen’’ state efforts, not to undermine them. Nevertheless, the resolution as finally adopted says only that the governors are “encouraged’’ by the board’s work and “look forward to reviewing’’ its final recommendations.

Edison Project’s ‘Hubs’

There was no lack of contention, however, during the meeting’s final plenary session, which featured a dialogue between the entrepeneur Chris Whittle, who is trying to start a nationwide chain of for-profit private schools, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Whittle, whose Edison Project plans to create 200 new schools by 1996, appealed to the governors on economic as well as educational grounds.

Noting that the project plans to spend an estimated $2.5 billion in start-up costs, Mr. Whittle predicted that it could be an economic boon to states with a large number of the new schools. States where officials are particularly open and helpful to the project, he suggested, are more likely to have schools built in them.

“Consider the schools as airline hubs,’' Mr. Whittle said. “States without them want them.’'

Without openly attacking the project, Mr. Shanker expressed a number of doubts about its potential for success. In particular, he repeated his frequently voiced opinion that schools, including Edison schools, will not improve significantly until students feel there are real rewards and penalties tied to their levels of achievement.

“I am waiting to see what magic can get kids to work three or four times as hard when they know the kids down the road [in public school] can get into the same college,’' Mr. Shanker said.

Another criticism of the Edison Project was raised by Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas, who worried that the new schools would “further dilute the quality of the kids in the public schools.’'

“The public-school system is going to be left with the kids you don’t want,’' Ms. Richards warned.

But Mr. Whittle responded that his schools would tackle the same problems facing the public schools.