Advice for the Asking Available as Clinton, Congress Push Agendas

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Free advice is easy to find here now that President Clinton and the Congress are getting serious about their agendas.

The Progressive Policy Institute, representing the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, suggests that the federal government stay the course of Mr. Clinton's first term, when his Goals 2000: Educate America Act nudged states toward raising academic standards.

The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, is urging Republicans in the new 105th Congress to lie low in promoting school vouchers while waiting for results from pilot projects in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

The libertarian Cato Institute, repeating a refrain many Republicans sang when they won control of Congress two years ago, is making the case for abolishing the Department of Education and returning all control to local politicians.

These plans and more are hot off the presses in books available this month or later this winter from each think tank, just as Mr. Clinton enters his second term and Congress starts aggressively considering issues such as renewing funding authority for special education, student financial aid, and other education programs.

Considering the political leanings of each institution, none of the recommendations comes as a surprise.

Both the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, for example, have long advocated ending the federal government's role in elementary and secondary education.

On the other hand, the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank aligned with the Democratic Leadership Council--an organization Mr. Clinton chaired before he became president--has supported most of the administration's proposals.

Debating Voucher Strategy

The Heritage book, however, does refine the group's strategy on vouchers.

The think tank remains in favor of giving students publicly funded vouchers to redeem at private schools, but it is urging Congress to wait for a groundswell of support before trying a large federal voucher program.

It is "highly unlikely that a major federal initiative for vouchers ... could pass Congress in the short term," Adam Meyerson writes in an essay included in Heritage's Mandate for Leadership IV: Turning Ideas Into Action.

But conservatives will benefit in the long run if they keep pushing for vouchers, Mr. Meyerson says. By offering ways for poor and minority parents to move their children out of failing public schools, conservatives will be able to win those groups' support at the polls, the argument goes.

Heritage, like Cato, wants to see the Education Department abolished. But the two split company when it comes to vouchers.

The libertarian group wants Congress to resist the urge to do anything.

"By all means, don't set up a national voucher plan," the think tank says in a draft of the Cato Handbook for Congress, which will be released officially this spring. "Just eliminate the Department of Education, end its meddlesome subsidies and regulations, and return its $30 billion budget to the American people in the form of a tax cut."

Private Management

The Progressive Policy Institute, meanwhile, is urging school boards to hire private companies to run schools.

The strategy would increase elected officials' power to act quickly, since they could cancel companies' contracts if schools did not measure up. Such a structure also would allow the boards to create schools with a variety of curriculum offerings, writes Kathleen Sylvester, the PPI's vice president for domestic policy.

Standards are essential for successful private management and any other school reform, Ms. Sylvester adds in the new report, Building the Bridge: 10 Big Ideas to Transform America.

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