Will Clinton’s Plan Fly?

March 01, 1998 4 min read
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When President Clinton called in his State of the Union address for federal legislation to help U.S. schools hire 100,000 new teachers, he received a telling response from Congress. Democratic members stood to cheer twice in the course of the president’s three-sentence proposal to reduce average class size to 18 in the first three grades. Across the aisle, a few Republicans applauded politely, but most sat stiffly in their seats.

Afterward, Republicans said they remained quiet because they are wary of the federal government’s committing $12.1 billion over the next seven years to the initiative. The new spending is especially difficult to justify, they said, given Clinton’s pronouncement in the same speech that all surplus money in the federal budget be dedicated to rebuilding the Social Security trust fund. “We don’t have money for everything he’s talking about, especially if we want to save every surplus dollar for Social Security,” said Representative Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana.

Other critics of the plan suggested that it is more important to improve the quality of current and future teachers than to hire new ones. And some wondered whether a provision requiring local districts to pay part of the new teachers’ salaries might limit the initiative’s usefulness to high-poverty districts.

Still, the proposal has supporters, and they insist such a program would be politically popular and educationally sound. “We’re talking about lower class sizes in the early grades—one of the most important things we can do,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers. “It’s not just a question of going out to find 100,000 new teachers.”

Despite the cool reaction within the Republican majority, the political allure of reducing class sizes is appealing to some in its ranks. Representative Bill Paxon, a Republican from New York, is pushing his own plan to reach Clinton’s goal of adding 100,000 new teachers. It would cut off funding for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Americorps federal community-service programs—two hallmarks of the president’s first term—and dedicate the money to the teaching initiative.

The administration has rejected Paxon’s approach. “He has a very wrongheaded way about how we would pay for such a proposal, since it would take the support that we need for public education back to the days when the Republicans were trying to dismantle or do away with the Department of Education,” said White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry. Clinton would pay for the program by adding $1.50 a pack to cigarette taxes.

Finding federal money may not be the only problem. Clinton has proposed that local districts partially match the federal funds earmarked for the new teachers’ salaries. But a similar matching requirement has slowed an existing Clinton program designed to help communities hire 100,000 police officers. In the first two years of the program, only 42 percent of the nation’s law-enforcement agencies applied for Department of Justice grants to pay 75 percent of the salaries of officers hired to fill new positions. In a survey of police departments that declined to apply, 62 percent said they couldn’t pay their portion of the officers’ salaries or the full cost of those salaries once federal funding ended after three years.

“The biggest issue was the match,” said Ken Goodwin, assistant executive director of the National Sheriffs Association. “In the age of shrinking budgets, it becomes very difficult to pay for officers.”

School districts would face similar problems if they had to pay between 10 percent and 50 percent of the new teachers’ salaries, as the president’s plan would require. For schools, the long-term impact could be dramatic because most teachers eventually win tenure and become permanent fixtures in local budgets. “What they’re forcing you to do is redirect your resources for the long term,” said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

But administration officials predict the sliding scale for low-income school systems wouldn’t deter them from participating. “It’s a pretty good deal for them,” said Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall Smith. “I don’t think it’s going to scare them away when it’s that low.” And, unlike the money for police, Smith said, the teacher subsidies would be permanent.

Although a few Republicans have latched on to the goal of hiring 100,000 new teachers, a coalition that includes both GOP and Democratic organizations is challenging it. In a January 21 memo to members of Congress, the coalition—which includes the Heritage Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the Brookings Institution—stated that “the U.S. does not have a serious aggregate teacher-quantity problem today.” What really needs to be addressed, the coalition argued, is that too many teachers don’t know their subjects well and too few of the best teach the neediest kids.

—David Hoff

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