Administration Makes P.R. Splash for America 2000

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OMAHA--The Bush Administration last week launched an intensive public-relations campaign to promote the President's America 2000 education strategy.

But while President Bush and other Administration officials applaud a succession of states and cities for signing on, interviews with educators and others in those locales indicate significant variation among communities in terms of how advanced America 2000 activities are.

In addition, sources suggest that there are wide differences among communities over how widely the America 2000 activities are supported and to what extent the efforts represent an endorsement of the Administration's policies.

To generate support for the Administration's education policy, Mr. Bush last week visited two schools in Lewiston, Me.; Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander led a contingent of Cabinet members to Omaha, where each visited a school; and Barbara Bush and Deputy Secretary of Education David T. Kearns joined other Cabinet members for an event in Maryland. (See related story, page 24 .)

Those events followed a June appearance by Mr. Bush in Colorado and visits by Mr. Alexander over the summer to Tennessee and Oklahoma. And the Secretary told reporters that "dozens" of similar events are planned for the next two months.

The Secretary has also inaugurated a daily conference call that he said would "hook up governors and their staffs [with his office] to give attention to events around the country that are America 2000 events."

The Secretary and the President say they want to draw public attention to their education plan, as well as to "catch people doing something good," in Mr. Alexander's words.

They also clearly want to build an image of a campaign sweeping the nation.

"The revolution has begnn in Colorado and Oregon, in Tulsa and Memphis, and today I'm proud to say right here in Lewiston and in every corner of the state of Maine," Mr. Bush said in a speech at Lewiston Comprehensive High School.

However, while they are eager to win converts, the President and the Secretary are quick to say that meaningful reform will not happen in Washington, but at the state and local levels--and in the home.

A 'Great Crusade'

In Lewiston, Mr. Bush delivered a grim assessment of the nation's educational standing, then called on all Americans to "enlist in this great crusade."

Mr. Alexander carried the same theme to Omaha, balancing praise for local efforts with encouragement to improve and comments about the importance of parent involvement.

Democratic critics back in Washington contend that the Administration is trying to take credit for acting on education reform while shifting the actual burden to someone else, and that they are thereby attempting to counter charges that Mr. Bush has ignored domestic problems.

At a news conference the same day Mr. Bush spoke in Maine, Ren Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the President was opening the campaign season with "a phony public-relations campaign."

Also at last Tuesday's news conference were Representative Vic Fazio, Democrat of California, and Steny H. Hoyer, the Democrat from Maryland who is chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Mr. Fazio noted that Republican administrations only propose increased federal education spending in "years divisible by four," meaning election years.

Mr. Hoyer agreed: "Mr. President, we need you to put your policy arm where your speeches are. There has been no support on this Hill over the last 12 years for substantial funding in elementary and secondary education."

Photo Opportunities

The events in Lewiston and Omaha were indeed light on specifics and heavy on rhetoric and photo opportunities, such as the Bushes reading to kindergartners on their first day at Farwell Elementary School.

Mr. Alexander did the same for children at Omaha's Franklin Learning Center, a magnet school that serves children from preschool age to 3rd grade, and Gov. Ben Nelson discussed with students the problems his state faced in 1891.

Students gave Mr. Alexander copies of books they had written and published in a computer lab, and others presented a rap song honoring America 2000.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin visited a program that helps high-school seniors make the transition to work, Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner inspected computers at North High School, Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan discussed nutrition at Sacred Heart Elementary School, and Jack Kemp, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visited a public-housing project.

No details were offered at either the Maine or Nebraska events about the content of the local America 2000 efforts being promoted.

However, interviews with sources in states and communities that have been highlighted suggest a state of play somewhere between widespread adoption of the reform challenge and the Administration's program, and a media mirage with no substance behind it.

It is clear that the Administration has rushed to find willing hosts for its events, and has joined in anointing as "America 2000 communities" places where organizing is in very preliminary stages.

America 2000 Designation

In Tulsa, for example, the local chamber of commerce has agreed to lead the effort and has named two co-chairmen, but no other progress has been made.

"I think there is probably some effort that needs to be put forth in terms of understanding what the actual objective is," said Dave Hentschel, chief executive of Occidental Petroleum and Gas Corporation and one of the chairmen.

Mr. Hentschel said the chamber was asked to organize the effort by U.S. Senator Don Nickles, Republican of Oklahoma, who engineered visits by Mr. Alexander to Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Oregon, which Mr. Alexander visited last month, has not launched any special initiative in response to America 2000, said a spokesman for Gov. Barbara Roberts. The effort Mr. Alexander praised is a radical education law that was almost through the legislative process when the Secretary's strategy was unveiled. Its highlight is a requirement that all loth graders choose either a college-preparatory curriculum or vocational training. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)

"We got the endorsement of a national figure; he got publicity for his program," the Governor's aide said.

The Administration's proposal states that governors are to designate "America 2000 communities," eligible to receive grants to create a "new American school," after they have adopted the six national education goals endorsed by Mr. Bush and the National Governors' Association last year, devised a strategy to meet the goals, and established a local report card to measure progress.

None of the states and communities that has hosted a visit can claim to have taken all those steps. But that did not stop Gov. John R. McKernan of Maine from declaring Lewisten the stato's first America 2000 community or Governor Nelson from doing the same for Omaha.

A Grassroots Effort However, interviews indicated that America 2000 has spurred the formation of reform coalitions in some communities that some observers think could ultimately achieve significant results.

Led by Gov. Roy Romer, Colorado in June became the first state to announce an America 2000 campaign.

"When I saw the idea come out of the White House, I knew it didn't yet have total form, and that it would be helpful if we in Colorado could show people a way to do it," he said in an interview.

Mr. Remer started with a teleconference in wlfich 141 of the state's 176 school districts participated, then followed up with regional conferences. "Field organizers" were charged with helping "goal teams" in each community prepare their own strategies.

A spokesman for the Governor conceded that she does not know how many cemmumties are actively participating, but she supplied clippings from newspapers indicating that many are. Representatives were to report on their efforts at a statewide meeting late last week.

"We see it as a tremendous opportunity to really involve entire commumties in how to accomplish the national education goals," said Dan Morns, president of the Colorado Education Association. "It's a grassroots effort that's not trying to be preseriptive." In Maine, Governor McKernan has asked each of the state's school beards to formally adopt the goals and commit to establishing strategies and reporting mechanisms. As of last week, 18 had responded.

The Governor also asked an existing, nonpartisan group called the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, which includes union activists and other educators, as well as business and civic representatives, to act as a steering committee.

No Cookie Cutter

The Memphis effort is also gnided by an existing, nonpartisan organization, called Goals for Memphis, which has taken on a variety of community-improvement activities. Six businesses have each contributed $25,000 to the effort, a broad-based steering committee has been named, and it will soon appoint task forces to establish strategies, according to Nancy Bogatin, the organization's chairman. A public forum is planned next month.

"I'm elated," said Ray Holt, acting superintendent of schools in Memphis. "This will enable us to get people together, to establish a working relationship between the businesses, the schools, and the community."

In contrast, the initiatives in Tulsa and Omaha are led solely by the cities' business communities, without any consultation with educators or clear plans for public input, and appear headed for conflict with teachers' unions.

Mr. Hentschel of Occidental Petroleum predicted "differences of opinion with the full-time educators."

And Charles Sitter, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said, "They don't seem to understand that if they include teachers, they will get better acceptance from the education community, and will thus be more successful."

Nebraska's state-level effort will consist of "encouraging and recognizing" local initiatives, said Lorraine Palleson, who was named to lead it.

Mr. Alexander said in an interview that accepting the challenge to become an "America 2000 community" does not necessarily mean endorsing the rest of the America 2000 strategy-which includes such controversial ideas as private-school choice.

'"We don't have a cookie cutter," he said. "Every state and community will have to do it in their own way."

That point has not been lost in the locales where America 2000 activities are run by diverse coalitions.

"There's a world of difference between America 2000 and Colorado 2000, and we went into this knowing that the Governor is not pressing a prescriptive agenda," Mr. Morris of the C.E.A. said. "I'd like to believe that the way Colorado is doing this will influence Lamar Alexander and President Bush."

Vol. 11, Issue 02, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: September 11, 1991, as Administration Makes P.R. Splash for America 2000
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