Town Vs. Gown?

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Mr. Clinton's budget would reward college-bound students but shortchange working-class families and schools.

President Clinton, with contagious exuberance, has detailed a sweet package of education proposals in recent weeks. We must think back to Lyndon B. Johnson to recall a president who has raised his voice so high, preaching unwavering faith in education as the salvation for America's ills, a bridge to the promised land.

Mr. Clinton is putting his money where his mouth is. Many parents and educators are singing praise for his overflowing candy box filled with delectable goodies: $27 billion in tuition tax credits for families earning up to $100,000, the promise of national curricular standards, a doubling of support for charter schools. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

The millions of soccer moms--and moderate suburban dads--who swung their support to candidate Bill Clinton last November must be elated. During the election season, they consistently told pollsters of their hand-wringing over public education. The re-elected president listened; now he's trying to deliver.

But the more one dives into the Clinton budget plan, biting into these sugarcoated proposals, the more one experiences a bittersweet aftertaste. It is what Mr. Clinton has not said about his fiscal map that is troubling: The administration is quietly moving away from its first-term attack on the stiff economic constraints that are strangling working-poor and blue-collar families. Instead, Mr. Clinton is giving the biggest candy box to affluent parents who are already committed to sending their youngsters to college.

During the president's rookie years--under the tutelage of broad policy thinkers, like Mary Jo Bane, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Robert B. Reich--the administration moved decisively to address deep structural hurdles facing low-income families: boosting the minimum wage, expanding child care, and boosting after-tax income for millions of working-poor parents who are scraping to stay above the poverty line.

Teachers in poor and working-class communities well know that until the burdens weighing down working-class parents are lightened, they won't have time to supervise their children's homework, go to PTA meetings, or earn enough money to save for college. Mr. Clinton also seemed to recognize this throughout his first term, pursuing a balanced policy strategy of redistributing income and basic services to low-income families, while incrementally boosting targeted programs, like Head Start and Title I.

But after moving to dead center politically, the president is putting his budgetary eggs primarily into higher education. Almost 70 percent of the new spending in Mr. Clinton's education package would go to colleges and universities, dwarfing a dispersed list of K-12 and early-education projects. And the bulk of tax relief--tied to expensive tuition credits--would flow to families with large tax bills and ample slices of income that can be put aside for new IRAs. Blue-collar families don't earn enough to gain much from the president's proposed tax breaks.

Mr. Clinton's tax-relief strategy is an artful counter to the Republican leadership, which proposed to cut taxes by $200 billion without any apparent social purpose. But the administration's proposals will face sharp questioning in the coming months:

  • Will tuition tax credits expand access to higher education? The president has proposed a $1,500-a-year, nonrefundable income-tax credit to help offset two years of college tuition. Families also could deduct up to $10,000 a year to be placed in a new IRA, drawing it down once their child enters college. The first piece is rhetorically linked to community college attendance, but how it's linked to the family's actual level of financial need remains hazy. The second piece would only benefit affluent families who earn enough to gain from sizable tax breaks.
Little evidence backs the president's assumption that money is the dominant problem.

The president's objective in advancing these costly initiatives: "to expand middle-class access to college." But is the alleged scarcity of financial aid the principal barrier to wider college access for those being left behind in a bimodal economy? Or, instead, would sustained reforms aimed at raising student performance at elementary and secondary levels, and more aggressive outreach efforts from within colleges, yield greater results?

Little evidence backs the president's assumption that money is the dominant problem. The College Board reports that the percentage of young people who earn a college degree--for those coming from families that earn over $65,000 annually--has risen steadily since 1970, from 40 percent to about 80 percent in 1994. The college-graduation rate for students from families earning under $25,000--those who would benefit little under Mr. Clinton's plan--has remained steady at just 9 percent over the past 25 years.

This lack of progress is even more distressing when we recognize that Washington has spent over $100 billion in Pell Grants alone since 1972. Professor Tom Kane, at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, recently reported that Pell Grants have slightly boosted the numbers of black and Latino students attending community college but have had no observable effect on the mix of students who enter four-year colleges.

The symbolic punch of boosting Washington's support of higher education by two-thirds over the next five years is vivid and felt by millions of parents. But this candy box, if swallowed by the Congress, would not likely entice more blue-collar and working-poor kids to enter college. And analysts point out that most of the new tax spending would be soaked up by colleges which would continue to raise their tuition levels.

  • Will high-school-graduation and college-admission rates rise without attacking underlying economic conditions facing low-income families? I began working at a charter school last month, situated close to the docks in south Oakland, Calif. One-third of the school's teenage, mostly Latino students read below the 2nd grade level. A few key parents, dissatisfied with the local public schools, came together to found this new middle school. But many work swing shifts and find little time to supervise their children's homework. Few of these students' older siblings have gone on to college, so why should they? The problem is expectations and commitment at home, not simply money. These kids must exhibit hope before they will apply for a scholarship.

Such concrete realities are mirrored by three decades of research that point to one obvious and suffocating constraint on student achievement: family poverty. These kids in Oakland are quick and witty, still curious about many things in life. But they won't get ahead simply by logging onto Al Gore's Web page. Kids in this neighborhood will move ahead only when their parents' economic instability is lessened and their early school performance rises.

  • Is Mr. Clinton pursuing a politically smart strategy? Americans are rightfully concerned about the state of their local schools. But why is the lion's share of resources going into tax relief for parents of college students? Certainly, more effective policy tools for raising rates of high school graduation and college entry must be available.

A couple of paragraphs buried deep in political consultant Dick Morris' book on the 1996 presidential campaign, Behind the Oval Office, may provide one answer. Mr. Morris recounts how, as he reviewed polling data each week, he discovered that tuition tax credits were an enormously popular idea for suburban swing voters, those parents who proved so crucial to Mr. Clinton's re-election. Fought tooth and nail by Democrats when President Reagan repeatedly pushed tax credits in the early 1980s, they offered a simple and crisp signal of Mr. Clinton's commitment to education. And tuition credits, Mr. Morris discovered, were overwhelmingly supported by female voters.

President Clinton's proposal, by advancing tax breaks for the most affluent families, would sharply exacerbate school finance disparities.

Ironically, the women situated in families that would benefit most from Mr. Clinton's tuition credits--those earning over $75,000 annually--ended up voting for Mr. Dole, 50 percent to 45 percent. The female voters that Mr. Clinton really owes are those in households with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000; they heavily backed the president, 57 percent to Mr. Dole's 33 percent, according to unpublished tallies from The Los Angeles Times poll. But their families will benefit only slightly from the Clinton budget plan.

The Clinton campaign team toyed with an alternative proposal: universal and free preschooling for all 4-year-olds. But Mr. Morris's polling results on tax credits were simply too impressive, and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley expressed other priorities.

What does all this mean for American educators? How should their national associations respond as the president's proposals are taken up by the Congress?

First, we need a more rigorous and informed discussion over whether unequal access to college is rooted in financial hurdles, or instead linked to children's low school performance at elementary and secondary levels--and underlying exigencies confronted by working-class parents each day. Much research shows that the stratification of school achievement is pretty much set even before children complete the elementary grades, with the youngsters of low-income and working-class parents already drifting toward the bottom. Simply revising the tax code will not remedy this problem.

Second, educators and their Washington-based leaders need to think more carefully about how they respond to a government that is abandoning its earlier focus on working-poor and blue-collar children. Urban school leaders often speak out against highly inequitable school finance systems, and push for more aid to support teachers who serve low-income children. President Clinton's proposal, by advancing tax breaks for the most affluent families, would sharply exacerbate school finance disparities. The nation's education leaders could respond with a more targeted effort that addresses low achievement in the early grades.

Neither the president nor a Republican Congress will fully trust local school leaders to pick their optimal strategy for boosting student performance. The fear is that federal resources would get frittered away, or simply finance teacher-salary increases, leaving behind few traces of real organizational change.

But it's equally hazy as to how Mr. Clinton's panoply of education initiatives would seriously alter working parents' ability to press their kids to do better in school. Nor will Internet connections and a handful of new charter schools bring fundamental change to urban and suburban schools that are struggling to serve low-income families.

In the coming months, the nation's school leadership should put forward a serious set of reform proposals--not simply a sugary placebo that pleases the taste buds of affluent parents. What's required is a $51 billion long-term plan that would truly aid parents and teachers in the shared task of raising our children's early achievement.

Vol. 16, Issue 24, Pages 35, 38

Published in Print: March 12, 1997, as Town Vs. Gown?

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