Critics Say Clinton Pitch Misses Political Point

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President Clinton is fond of saying that improving schools, an issue as significant for him as the Cold War was to his predecessors, deserves the same united front Democrats and Republicans took with the Soviet Union.

"Today, in the information age, politics should stop at the schoolhouse door because our security depends upon our ability to give all our people the finest education in the world," Mr. Clinton told the American Council on Education on Feb. 24.

For more than a month, that sentiment has been a standard part of the president's pitch to educators, state legislators, and business leaders as he stumps for his 10-point "Call to Action for American Education." A similar line drew a bipartisan standing ovation during the president's Feb. 4 State of the Union Address.

But as laudable as Mr. Clinton's premise may be, politicians, political scientists, and historians doubt that his agenda will move forward without becoming embroiled in debates that divide the political parties. Most say that the 10-point plan should be subjected to intense scrutiny and that Democrats and Republicans should fight for popular opinion to support their beliefs.

"That perhaps is the most absurd thing he's ever said," Lamar Alexander, who served as secretary of education under President Bush, said of Mr. Clinton's call to take politics out of education. The former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination said that differences between Mr. Clinton and the GOP are so stark that the issue "needs to be fought out in the political arena."

Mr. Clinton's push for bipartisanship comes soon after an election in which school policy played an unprecedented role. ("Clinton Casts Education in Starring Role," Oct. 23, 1996.)

"It's not surprising and it's not atypical for a president to do that, particularly for a second-term president," Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University here, said. "I'd say it's not realistic."

"I'm skeptical of Bill Clinton's claim to leave politics aside in anything," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of oversight of federal education programs. "If we can do it, hallelujah, I'm for it. We're preparing with the belief that he will make it a political issue."

Encouraging Overtures

Still, Mr. Hoekstra acknowledged, Mr. Clinton has made some conciliatory gestures toward GOP lawmakers since he first issued his call for a nonpartisan education policy in the State of the Union Address.

For example, the day after unveiling his school agenda, the president invited Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House education committee, to the White House to discuss each other's ideas. Last week, Mr. Goodling and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate education committee, joined first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a tour of Washington schools to review their need for improvements.

In his speech to the ACE, Mr. Clinton also thanked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who preceded him on the program, for refraining from partisan jabs when Mr. Lott suggested Republicans might compromise on elements of Mr. Clinton's plan, such as helping families finance college tuition with tax benefits.

"I was encouraged by the report I got ... about the words that Senator Lott said earlier here today," Mr. Clinton said. "During the Cold War, we had a bipartisan foreign policy because ... the future of the country was at stake."

Despite the promising overtures, officials do not predict the debate over Mr. Clinton's education plans can be so delicate.

Mr. Clinton's agenda includes items Republicans and Democrats can endorse like a call for students to improve their reading and math achievement. But his plan to create national tests that states could voluntarily participate in is "divisive and diversionary," said Michael E. James, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College in New London.

Likewise, another prong in Mr. Clinton's agenda includes school choice, but it would be limited to public schools and charter schools. That ignores the debate over whether government should finance vouchers to be redeemed in private and religious schools.

"These are legitimate differences among the participants, and those ideas should be informed by research," said Maris Vinovkis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. "But ultimately they will be decided in the political arena."

Partisan Battles Await

Other portions of Mr. Clinton's agenda will be the subject of legislative debate. The plan to provide $5 billion to subsidize school construction begs a question that deeply divides Democrats and Republicans: Should recipients of federal construction spending be required to pay union wages?

Two years ago, Democrats boycotted a vote to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that federally funded construction projects pay such wages. But Republicans say the law adds unnecessary costs and headaches to any federally subsidized project.

"It would be very, very difficult to pass a bill that would attach federal regulations to school building projects," Mr. Hoekstra said.

"When you get to the details of policies, it gets very partisan." said Mr. Lichtman, the American University historian. "We have a party system because we don't always agree."

"It's right for the president to urge people to come to some sort of agreement on these issues," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said. "It's appropriate leadership."

But the president's ideas should not go unchallenged, Mr. Alexander said.

"I would like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to compete to see who can create the best schools in the world," he said. "We all used to do that when we were governors, and it made our states better states."

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