Clinton's Call for Racial Harmony Sparks Debate on Education Policy

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President Clinton's call to heal the nation's racial divisions has highlighted his differences with Republicans over school policy.

In speeches this month, Mr. Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., both called education a key ingredient in leveling the playing field for members of different races.

But they disagreed starkly on what policies to pursue, with both sides reaffirming long-held positions.

"We must create better opportunities for all children to learn by ... giving urban parents the financial opportunity to choose the public, private, or parochial school that's best for their children," the House leader said in a speech to the Orphan Foundation here June 18.

Two Views

Instead of school choice, Mr. Clinton's June 14 speech on race relations focused on improving public schools so the achievement of all children would rise.

"There are no children who, because of their ethnic or racial background, cannot meet the highest academic standards if we set them and measure our students against them, if we give them well-trained teachers and well-equipped classrooms, and if we continue to support reasoned reforms to achieve excellence, like the charter school movement," the president said in a commencement speech at the University of California, San Diego.

In addition, Mr. Clinton defended college admissions policies that give preferences to minority students. That drew Mr. Gingrich's ire.

"The president must abandon the misguided belief that our society should ever use discrimination to end discrimination," Mr. Gingrich and author Ward Connerly, a University of California regent, wrote in the The New York Times the day after Mr. Clinton's speech. Mr. Connerly, who is black, helped champion the movement to pass a 1996 California referendum to abolish race-based preferences in government programs, including schools.

Upcoming Debates

The war of words will likely lead to legislative battles in coming months.

Even before last week, Republicans, with a few Democrats supporting them, promised to push for a school-voucher-demonstration program in the District of Columbia this year.

A similar attempt last year failed when Democrats in the Senate filibustered against it. The president had opposed the measure.

In his June 18 speech, Mr. Gingrich also endorsed community-redevelopment legislation that requires participating cities to offer school vouchers. ("Black Congressman Backs Private School Voucher Measure," March 19, 1997.)

His Republican colleagues also unveiled legislation last week to repeal affirmative action programs in response to Mr. Clinton's defense of them.

Civil rights activists generally take Mr. Clinton's side in the school choice debate. Still, they aren't enamored of some other elements of the president's education agenda.

For example, one of Mr. Clinton's education goals is to entice 100,000 teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

That is a laudable aim, according to William L. Taylor, a noted school desegregation lawyer. But it does nothing to improve the inner-city schools where most minority children are enrolled, he argued.

"There is a crying need in central cities for improved teaching," said Mr. Taylor, who is a visiting professor at the Stanford University law school in California. "What he has given is a much more diffuse call for teachers."

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