With a Track Record on Education, Campaigner Clinton Speaks With Authority

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MANCHESTER, N.H.--The recession has knocked New Hampshire's schools, almost entirely dependent on property taxes, into a state of financial shock. It is little surprise, then, that Bill Clinton is asked about education at virtually every campaign stop he makes in this state.

The local problem is not particularly amenable to a federal solution, but Mr. Clinton eagerly seizes on the opportunity to talk about education.

"I think we need a real education President," he says, taking a shot at President Bush, who claimed the title in 1988. "We need more than photo ops at schools, and rhetoric, and telling other people what to do."

"We need a real education policy," says Mr. Clinton, campaigning in the state that kicks off the Presidential primary season Feb. 18., and he proceeds to outline one: full funding of Head Start, a national apprenticeship program, a college-loan trust fund, a huge investment in adult and preschool education, national testing.

There is nothing new about Presidential candidates touting the importance of education.

But, given the fact that Mr. Clinton is the first serious contender whose national reputation rests substantially on his efforts in education reform, he extols the virtues of school improvement with unique authority.

Mr. Clinton has played a leading role in the National Governors' Association's high-profile work on school reform, and he can legitimately claim a great deal of credit for the existence of national education goals.

In his 11 years as Governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton has dramatically increased state spending on education and persuaded the legislature to enact a long list of reforms, including curricular standards, an open enrollment policy, universal student testing, mandatory kindergarten, and a teacher-competency test.

But critics say the results have been less than overwhelming.

And, while it is true that the high despair quotient in New Hampshire has made people nervous about the quality of their children's schools, it is far from certain that Mr. Clinton's education record can put him over the top here or anywhere else.

In a Gallup poll conducted last month for USA Today, 87 percent of respondents said education is a "very important" issue in the 1992 election. Only the economy was deemed important by more people. In that same poll, only 46 percent said they approve of President Bush's handling of education issues. Other polls have yielded similar results.

But the traditional view is that education is not an issue that sways people's votes in Presidential elections.

"Right now, the focus is obviously on the economy," said Linda DiVall, the president of American Viewpoint, a Republican polling firm. "And to the extent the economy dominates, education is not going to be a significant issue."

But Mr. Clinton thinks his education record will help him.

"It will help because this year the American people know it's important to our economic future," he said in an interview.

"The President himself put the issue into play by calling himself the 'education President,'" Mr. Clinton added. "I'd love to take that on."

'The Best of Friends'

Mr. Clinton's record is also winning him early support from the powerful teachers' unions.

The largest union, the National Education Association, will not issue an endorsement until late April. But Keith Geiger, the president of the N.E.A., said "five or six" state affiliates have already endorsed Mr. Clinton.

"Most of our affiliates, while they haven't endorsed him, are working for him," Mr. Geiger added. "His record is clear."

The American Federation of Teachers will not endorse a candidate independently of its parent union, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which reportedly will sit out the primaries. But A.F.T. members have been encouraged to seek slots as convention delegates, said Rachelle Horowitz, the union's political director.

"A plurality of the people who have filed, particularly among our local officers and vice presidents, have filed on behalf of Bill Clinton," she said.

Even the Arkansas Education Association, Mr. Clinton's bitter enemy for years as a result of his proposal to institute a teacher competency test, supports him now--a change of heart critics suggest can be explained by the $4,000 raise for teachers included in his 1991 legislative package.

"That was a part of it, but it's more than that," said Sid Johnson, the president of the A.E.A.

"We had to have some time to get over [the testing dispute]. We were insulted," Mr. Johnson said. "You know, sometimes your own family members can get you the maddest."

"It's only fair," he said, "to go back and see that, before we were the worst of enemies, we were the best of friends. We were among the first to endorse him" for Governor.

'Was Anyone Listening?'

That endorsement came in 1978, when, at the age of 32, Mr. Clinton was first elected Governor.

Before seeking the governorship, Mr. Clinton had run unsuccessfully for the Congress and successfully for attorney general.

In his short political career, Mr. Clinton, who came from a modest background, had become a walking advertisement for the uplifting power of education. His resume included not only degrees from Georgetown University and Yale Law School, but also a Rhodes Scholarship.

A few months before his 1978 victory, the Arkansas legislature received the results of a study it had commissioned of the state's education system.

The author, Kern Alexander, then a professor at the University of Florida, concluded that, "from an educational standpoint, the average child in Arkansas would be much better off attending the public schools of almost any other state in the country."

Spurred on by that study, Mr. Clinton pressed the legislature to enact a student-testing program and a program for gifted children, and he succeeded in winning lawmakers' backing of a small raise for teachers.

But the funding increase was modest, and education was only one of many issues Mr. Clinton pressed in his first two-year term.

Mr. Clinton was defeated in his first re-election bid in 1980. Political analysts attribute the loss to an increase in license-plate fees, rioting among Cubans at a federal prison, and more subtle matters of style and perceived arrogance.

But Mr. Clinton won back the Governor's seat in 1982--this time determined to focus on education and economic development. And, in 1983, state courts lent momentum to his efforts by declaring the state's education-finance system unconstitutional.

"Was Bill Clinton talking about education before that? Yes," said Mark Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Beard. "Was anyone listening? Not that much."

Mr. Clinton appointed a commission to study the issue of educational standards and named his wife, Hillary, chairman. A lawyer who heads the Children's Defense Fund's board of directors, she has served on several national commissions since then and has been a vocal advocate for parent-education and child-welfare programs.

Reforms Enacted

In 1983, the Governor called a special session of the legislature. When it was over, Arkansas had signed on to the lion's share of the school-improvement agenda being debated nationally by leaders in the nascent education-reform movement.

Besides revamping the state-aid formula, the law required all teachers to pass a controversial competency test, making Arkansas the first state to institute such a mandate.

According to literature prepared by Mr. Clinton's staff, 1,400 teachers did not pass the test and, therefore, were not recertified.

But Mr. Johnson of the teachers' association said that many of those teachers retired rather than take the test, and that its main effect was to lower teacher morale. In any case, Mr. Clinton says,

teacher competency was the most prevalent issue raised in public hearings, and he argued then that the test had to be part of the package to win public support for the tax increases that paid for it.

The Governor returned with another education package in 1989 and won only a partial victory when the legislature enacted his proposals, but not the additional tax increase he sought. But lawmakers enacted it last year, along with another list of programs.

Among the reforms enacted during Mr. Clinton's tenure as Governor are:

  • Minimum standards for course offerings and class sizes, which eventually forced inadequate districts to consolidate.

  • Student-competency testing, including an 8th-grade test on which a passing mark is a prerequisite for entering high school.

  • A preschool parent-education program that has become a national model.

  • A statewide open-enrollment plan that allows parents to send their children to any district with available space, as long as racial balance is not affected.

  • Loan and scholarship programs, some aimed at would-be teachers.

  • Fines for parents who miss school conferences or allow truancy.

  • An annual report card.

  • A law stripping driver's licenses from students who drop out of school before the age of 17.

  • An apprenticeship program for non-college-bound youths, run in cooperation with local employers.

"It takes time to change the education system," Mr. Clinton said. "if you look at the poverty problems, the finance problems, the family problems, and the fact that ideas don't travel well, I think that explains why you're not able to expect dramatic results."

"But I think our results are as dramatic as anyone else has gotten," he said.

Spending and Achievement

There is no doubt that Mr. Clinton's efforts dramatically increased school budgets. The sales tax enacted in 1983 raises about $200 million a year, and the state devotes about 70 percent of its budget to education, the third-highest rate in the nation.

But other states increased spending during the past decade as well, and Arkansas is still near the bottom in both per-pupil expenditures and teacher salaries, although this year's teachers' raises will probably improve that ranking.

Statistical evidence indicates that achievement has improved as well.

In 1991, Arkansas students took far more advanced courses and 18 times as many Advanced Placement tests as they did in 1983. The high school graduation rate has risen steadily, and is the highest in the South. The percentage of students going on to college rose from 39 percent in 1981 to 52 percent last year.

Student competency-test pass rates have risen steadily since the tests were inaugurated in 1985. Percentile scores on nationally normed standardized achievement tests rose about 10 points from 1981 to 1991, and are now above 50 percent in every grade and subject.

The state changed tests in 1986, and scores are thus not strictly comparable, but percentile rankings rose steadily on each test during the years it was given.

However, scores on the American College Testing Program test are stagnant, and are among the lowest of the states where that college-admissions test is the primary one used.

Mr. Clinton's critics cite the negative statistics, and argue that the test-score gains are minimal--especially in light of the additional money that has been spent on schools.

'49th in Everything'

One of Mr. Clinton's Democratic primary opponents, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, has been telling campaign audiences that Arkansas is "49th in everything."

Sheffield Nelson, a businessman who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Clinton in 1990 and is now a co-chairman of the state Republican Party, claimed that 70 percent of Arkansas college students require remedial courses and that many do not graduate. He also says Mr. Clinton exaggerates the effectiveness of his programs.

For example, Mr. Nelson said, the Governor once claimed that all 130 mothers participating in the state's parent-education program in a particular county had gotten jobs, when, in fact, only one had--at McDonald's.

"It's all smoke and mirrors," Mr. Nelson said.

But Mr. Clinton's critics could not name educators who share their views.

Charles Dyer, the superintendent of schools in Alma, Ark., said his 2,400-student district has gained "millions of dollars" since 1983 under the revamped finance formula, increased its teaching force from 100 to 150, added new courses, and slashed class sizes.

"My child was never in a class of less than 32 until he got to high-school physics," Mr. Dyer said, adding: "I can't say enough about what the Governor has done for education in Arkansas."

"I think he changed the attitude of that state toward education," said Kern Alexander, now a professor of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "They have made enormous progress."

"The balance sheet clearly is in his favor," Mr. Musick said. "He did something almost nobody else has been able to do. He set in motion things that ensure the situation will be even better in 5 or 10 years."

A National Player

Mr. Clinton has built a reputation as an "education governor" on the national level as well.

He was an active member of the N.G.A., and was next in line for its top post when Lamar Alexander, then Governor of Tennessee and the chairman of the N.G.A., launched the "Time for Results" education initiative.

Mr. Alexander, who is now U.S. Secretary of Education, tapped Mr. Clinton as a co-chairman of the effort, in which committees of governors studied aspects of education and made recommendations. Mr. Clinton also headed the panel that studied school leadership.

During Mr. Clinton's year as N.G.A. chairman, the organization produced a report on economic competitiveness that focused on the role of improved education, and reports on teenage pregnancy and school dropouts.

Also during Mr. Clinton's tenure as chairman, the N.G.A. issued a report on welfare reform that is regarded as a primary influence on legislation later enacted by the Congress that requires welfare recipients to pursue education or jobs.

In 1989, the N.G.A. called on Mr. Clinton again, when he and Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina were tapped to head an education task force and to represent the governors in negotiations on an "education summit" to be held that September in Charlottesville, Va.

While it was President Bush's idea to call the summit--a pledge he had made during the 1988 Presidential campaign--it was the governors, led by Mr. Clinton, who demanded that the summit have a tangible product.

The real action was at an all-night meeting at the Boar's Head Inn, where a handful of governors and White House officials agreed on a statement promising that goals would be announced at the N.G.A. meeting in February 1990 and establishing the broad areas in which they would be set.

Shaping the Goals

Mr. Clinton, who drafted the goals agreement, tells campaign audiences: "I stayed up till 2:30 in the morning writing those education goals, and at least getting them to commit to that."

The goals themselves were actually written over subsequent months, but the Boar's Head meeting foreshadowed the process that followed it. While input was solicited both in public hearings and in private consultations, the decisions were ultimately made by three men--Mr. Clinton, Mr. Campbell, and Roger B. Porter, the President's chief domestic-policy adviser.

Because the governors wanted Mr. Bush to unveil the goals in his 1990 State of the Union Message, Mr. Porter had the upper hand, and the terse list of six goals that was announced closely resembled his drafts, while Mr. Clinton had wanted more specific subgoals in the document.

"A lot of Democrats thought I wasn't tough enough," Mr. Clinton recalled.

But the complete document eventually approved by the N.G.A. included many of his points as "objectives."

Once the goals were written, Mr. Clinton essentially bowed out. Governor Roy Romer of Colorado became the co-chairman, along with Governor Campbell, of the panel charged with monitoring progress toward the goals.

Mr. Clinton said he knew he was facing a tough re-election fight back home, he thought Mr. Romer was "well suited" to delve into technical assessment issues, and he had been asked to chair a task force on health care later in the year.

Besides, Mr. Clinton said, "I didn't want the Democrats to feel I was trying to dominate the education issue, that I was the only education governor."

A Matter of Style

People who have worked with Mr. Clinton say that the deliberate way he approached both the goals process and state education reform--gathering input, combining ideas, and negotiating personally--is typical.

His detractors say he does not stand on principle, uses commissions to duck responsibility, and drifts with the political winds. His supporters say he has a talent for forging compromises among diverse factions, and for accumulating good ideas.

"He gathers information, he's a voracious reader, he picks up on everything that's out there," said Kellar Noggle, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of School Administrators. "If he thinks it's a good idea, next week we're talking about it here in Arkansas."

For example, the idea of revoking dropouts' driver's licenses was pioneered in West Virginia, and the state's acclaimed parent-education program is an Israeli import.

Mr. Clinton often urges educators and his fellow governors to "steal each other's ideas," adding that "every problem must have been solved by someone, somewhere."

Asked who is advising him on education in the Presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton paused, then gave an ideologically varied list of people whose work influenced his thinking, rather than a short list of consultants.

The list ranged ideologically from Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, to Chester E. Finn Jr., the conservative scholar who was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration. And it included many well-known education-reform advocates, such as John I. Goodlad, Marc S. Tucker, and Ernest L. Boyer. On the campaign trail, Mr. Clinton's basic message is that Americans must pull together in an effort to regain international competitiveness, behind a national economic strategy. The message is an emotional appeal to voters who "have lived through a decade in which the idea of community was destroyed," and also a detailed policy package, in which education is a key element.

His major proposals include a national apprenticeship program similar to the one he established in Arkansas; increased spending on preschool and Chapter 1 compensatory-education programs; a massive effort in adult education that "would get everyone a [General Educational Development certificate] within five years"; and a new college-loan program.

Under Mr. Clinton's proposal, any student could get a loan, regardless of income, and it would be paid back through either a payroll deduction or two years of community service.

'Hitting It on the Head'

New Hampshire educators generally like what they hear.

"For once, I've heard somebody hit it on the head about what we need for education," said Tom White, a social-studies teacher at Keene High School.

Mr. Clinton evokes that response even though he does not have a quick answer for the school-finance question that comes up so often. He told some audiences that the federal government should use "incentives" to persuade states to equalize school funding, but he said in the interview that he has not thought through how that would work.

He said he would like to "reexamine the whole mission of the [U.S.] Education Department," turning it into something analogous to an agricultural extension service that "has the best people go out in the field and show how good ideas can travel."

He said he would consider appointing a school principal as secretary of education.

"I would look for someone committed to being a change agent," he said, "someone who has educated children to world-class standards against the odds."

Mr. Clinton acknowledged admiring comments he made several years ago about former Secretary William J. Bennett's attention grabbing style, but said he would prefer someone who could keep the spotlight on education without being as divisive as Mr. Bennett.

"You have to be able to challenge the established order but still effect change in people who are a part of that order," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton said he "respects" Secretary Alexander, and likes his focus on community responsibility. He also agrees with Mr. Alexander about the need for regulatory flexibility and on assessment, and said he would "have no objection to" a national test.

But Mr. Clinton thinks that "allowing people to go to private schools with public money would be a big mistake," and that emphasizing innovative "new American schools" is misguided.

"The problem with Lamar's program is he thinks that if you set up a few schools, everybody will conform to that," Mr. Clinton said. "That's not so, and it won't do anything for the vast majority of schools."

Vol. 11, Issue 20, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: February 5, 1992, as With a Track Record on Education, Campaigner Clinton Speaks With Authority
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