Educators Give Democratic Council Differing Advice on Agenda for School Reform
By Michael Newman
Washington--A group of moderate Democrats meeting here last week to promote a "mainstream agenda" for their party heard differing advice on school issues from two prominent educators.
Appearing on an education panel at the fall conference of the Democratic Leadership Council, Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., stressed the need to emulate Japan by lengthening the school day and week.
"We want Japanese results in an American culture," he said. "They're mutually exclusive" without such steps.
But earlier in the session, another panelist, Keith B. Geiger, president of the National Education Association, told the group that education reforms have often wrongly "focused on more, not better, schooling."
"As long as this emphasis remains, I don't think we're going to get very far," he said.
And when Mr. Spillane spoke of the need for an "educated teacher workforce," he touted his district's merit-pay plan and criticized the NEA's opposition to it.
"Merit pay is anathema to the NEA," said Mr. Spillane, turning to Mr. Geiger. "You're not going to hear Keith Geiger talking about it."
Mr. Geiger did not respond.
Members of the DLC downplayed the disagreements, saying the group was only beginning to debate education issues and was willing to consider all viewpoints.
"We wanted to have diverse views" at the conference, said Alvin From, executive director of the council. "You can't deal with your differences if don't have open debate."
The DLC was founded in 1985 by moderate and conservative leaders of the Democratic Party as a vehicle for moving the party away from positions deemed more liberal than those of most voters.
Members attending last week's meeting drafted a "mainstream Democratic credo" addressing a range of topics, including education.
"Unlike the Republicans, we do not believe in giving people incentives to abandon public schools," the statement reads. "However, we cannot permit the education establishment to thwart essential reforms."
Mr. From said his group meant no specific organizations in referring to the "education establishment."
"There is a bias against reform generally," he said. "In the educational arena, there are some strong forces.... I know the NEA has been resistant to some reforms like merit pay."
Yet he stressed that the DLC has a friendly relationship with the nation's largest teachers' union, which has been a major source of financial and organizational support for Democratic candidates.
Officials of the union said they agreed with that assessment.
"We've been participating in the DLC for a considerable period of time," said Michael D. Edwards, the union's chief lobbyist. He added that the council is now a "far more diverse group" than when it was founded by predominantly Southern Democrats, such as Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.
Both Mr. From and Mr. Edwards also emphasized that the DLC "credo'' was only in draft form. Mr. From said the organization will outline more specific proposals before its annual convention next March, and plans to hold a daylong conference on education this winter.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a DLC member, also offered advice at last week's education forum. He urged the council to "go beyond the incremental liberalism" of some Democrats, but warned against giving Republicans "a free ride."
"The Republican emphasis on choice, on alternative certification and magnet schools," Mr. Clinton said, does not "let them off the hook" on education issues.
He said the council should support restructuring efforts that "push the decisionmaking down as much as possible to the school level."