Education Seen Key to Forging Clinton Legacy

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After using education as the bedrock of his political revival, President Clinton may turn to school issues in his second term as a way to chisel a legacy.

In the past two years of his first term, Mr. Clinton successfully gained popularity with voters by staring down the Republican-controlled Congress over its proposed education cuts. And in his campaign for a second term, which he easily won last week over former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, he campaigned on a potpourri of education initiatives he said would help "build our bridge to the 21st century."

Now that voters have handed him a second term, Mr. Clinton will have to make good on his promises to push tax breaks for higher education, create a volunteer reading corps, and offer financial incentives to renovate and rebuild old schools.

Mr. Clinton is not just discovering the issue. He used school reform to build his political reputation as governor of Arkansas, and the campaign proposals may serve as building blocks for an education focus in his second term.

"Clinton will again turn to his past to try to give his presidency historic definition," journalist David Maraniss, a leading biographer of Mr. Clinton, wrote last week in The Washington Post. "[His advisers] say he wants to be remembered as the education president, just as he developed a reputation in Arkansas as the education governor."

"He will do for education what John Kennedy did for the space program--set us on a path to be the best in the world," former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said last week on ABC-TV.

But Mr. Clinton will face a familiar set of foes.

Republicans retained the control of Congress they won in 1994. As of late last week, the gop had captured 225 House seats, compared with 205 for the Democrats and one elected Independent. Another four races remained undecided. In the Senate, the Republicans will have at least 54 seats, with one seat still to be decided by absentee ballots.

While the GOP caved in to election-year pressure and approved sizable increases in education spending in September, there is no guarantee that Republicans will be as generous about Mr. Clinton's education agenda for the 105th Congress, observers point out.

The two top Republicans on Capitol Hill--House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi--pledged cooperation with the White House last week. But Republicans remain skeptical of Mr. Clinton, who they feel has co-opted many conservative issues for short-term political advantage.

"Will we see the moderate-conservative President Clinton when he speaks or the very liberal President Clinton when he acts?" asked Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. "If we see the moderate-to-conservative one, then there should be a good working relationship."

Will Riley Stay?

In addition to working with a Congress run by the opposing party, the White House faces numerous other complications, observers said.

Mr. Clinton must decide whether to retain his education team, including Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, one of his most trusted advisers. As of late last week, Mr. Riley had not hinted whether he would stay or leave.

Mr. Riley spoke with the president last week about his status and a range of transition issues. A spokesman for Mr. Riley said the two came to no resolution about Mr. Riley's future with the administration.

The secretary has expressed a desire in the past to return to his native South Carolina, but he has also been a team player who has pledged to serve as long as the president wants him to.

Undersecretary Marshall S. Smith, who is acting as the deputy secretary and who has been in charge of policy development at the Department of Education, is also undecided about staying on for the second term.

Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser and a former aide to Mr. Riley, is likely to remain with the administration, either at the White House or in the department.

But as it mulls whether to shuffle key players, the White House will also plan its legislative strategy for education.

What direction it will take is also unclear.

"We're in a period for a while where the most honest answer is 'I don't know yet,'" Mr. Cohen said of what comes next. "We know that the players are the same, and the question is: Have the rules of the game changed? That's what we're all trying to figure out and to shape."

Mr. Clinton's proposed college tax breaks--a $1,500 tax credit for individuals and a $10,000 tax deduction for families--and his school construction initiative, which would provide $5 billion over four years to reduce interest payments on construction loans, would likely be included in a tax-and-budget bill, administration officials said.

But there is no indication how the reading initiative, in which the president wants to mobilize 1 million volunteer tutors to help every child to read by the 3rd grade, would take shape.

"No decisions have been made about the sequencing of anything, either among education proposals or between education and other priorities," Mr. Cohen said.

Unresolved Details

The White House will also have to address the concerns of education associations about some of Mr. Clinton's campaign proposals.

While the groups were unwilling to challenge the president during the campaign, education lobbyists and other observers here say that if the rhetoric is going to become reality, some talks must take place.

Higher education specialists, for example, express grave, but not insurmountable, concerns about Mr. Clinton's $43 billion in proposed tax breaks for college tuition.

They say that contrary to the president's position that the tax breaks would improve access to higher education for poor students, the proposals would likely benefit middle-income students who already plan to attend college.

"Let's face it, the president's proposals are not intended to help needy students," said David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization of higher education groups.

In addition, the second and final year of the $1,500 tax credit would be limited to students who have a B average. Observers question whether such a proposal, which for the first time would make academic standing a condition for receiving federal student aid, could lead to grade inflation, alter a student's course choices, affect whether students attend colleges that are more academically rigorous than others, or portend changes in the more established federal loan and grant programs.

"You open a Pandora's box," Mr. Merkowitz said.

Other unanswered questions include how the federal government would certify a student's academic standing and whether such programs would become so large as to overtake the existing aid programs.

However, one observer pointed out, Republicans who took a pounding over their proposals to reduce federal education spending could be as eager as Mr. Clinton to demonstrate their support for education.

"The extent to which this becomes a politically popular item, and I think it may be, will put pressure on both Democrats and Republicans," said Barmak Nassirian, the director of policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Another of Mr. Clinton's popular ideas, the proposed reading initiative, has its own bridges to cross before it gets to the 21st century.

Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant secretary for education research under President Bush, said teachers and education researchers are beginning to express misgivings about "releasing potentially tens of thousands of untrained people in the field."

And even Secretary Riley and Mr. Smith have some qualms with the school construction proposal.

The proposals, Mr. Cohen said, "will get worked out through the normal conversation process with the education community."

Republican Agenda

Speaker Gingrich and Senator Lott, meanwhile, have suggested that they will give Mr. Clinton the "first turn at bat" in producing an agenda.

After the 1994 elections, Republicans sought to eliminate the Education Department and sharply curtail federal education programs. But their efforts failed. And even though most Republican incumbents survived blistering Democratic attacks in this fall's campaigns, they realized that public opinion was against them.

Deciding whether to go after education again is a touchy subject.

If Mr. Goodling has his way, the answer would be no.

"It was a tremendous mistake," the House education committee chairman said of his party's controversial proposed changes in school lunches, student loans, and other education programs.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan, said the Republicans should not let themselves be defined by what they oppose.

"We'll see Republicans being clearer and more outspoken and forthcoming about what they are for in education," he said, "and I think that's an important repositioning in an area that people are still concerned about, and one in which the Republicans were outflanked and out-argued by the Democrats."

That should translate into long discussions of such issues as school vouchers and block grants, issues that help define the differences between Republicans and Democrats on federal education policy.

"I think it's clear to everybody, including the president, that education is not only a big substantive issue, it's a big political issue. The president has clearly struck a nerve," said William Galston, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and former adviser to Mr. Clinton. "The questions are, how early in his term will he introduce his education agenda [and] whether he will follow through and address the structural problems of public education."

Staff Writer David J. Hoff contributed to this story.

Vol. 16, Issue 11

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