Clinton Plan Would Target Poor Schools

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While President Clinton's new proposal to help high-poverty schools played only a minor part in his first town meeting on race last week, it offered a revealing preview of his administration's 1998 agenda for poor urban and rural districts.

The program is the first piece of a plan to help such districts raise student achievement, administration officials said.

"We've obviously stressed [urban issues] before," Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said. "But this kind of ups the ante."

What else will fill out that package is still undecided, according to Mr. Smith and Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser.

So far, administration officials have a sketchy outline for Mr. Clinton's proposed "education opportunity zones"--the program he announced at the town meeting in Akron, Ohio--and for plans to revive a failed attempt to support school construction projects. But they don't know how much money they will request for those or any other initiatives in Mr. Clinton's fiscal 1999 budget.

Despite the lack of specifics, the focus on poor schools has heartened urban school leaders. They say it represents the Democratic administration's first attempt to make city schools a priority since Mr. Clinton took office nearly five years ago.

"It looks like a great first step and a quite promising one," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group representing the nation's 50 largest urban school districts. "I expect the whole issue of urban education will be much higher on the national agenda next year."

Limited Details

At the Dec. 3 town hall meeting, one of a series planned as part of Mr. Clinton's effort to heighten national discussion of racial issues, the president briefly mentioned the educational-opportunity-zones plan. It was the only addition to the racial-reconciliation agenda he endorsed in the two-hour event at the University of Akron.

The "proposal [is] to create educational opportunity zones to reward school districts in poor urban and rural areas who undertake the kind of sweeping reform that Chicago has embraced in the last couple of years," Mr. Clinton said.

To qualify for aid under the proposed program, school districts would need to promise to offer students a choice of public schools to attend, adopt challenging student-performance standards, tie grade promotions to students' success in meeting them, and overhaul schools where students consistently fail to meet the standards.

Whether local districts would have the authority to take all such actions on their own is unclear, according to one expert on state education laws. Only 30 of the states, for example, have laws allowing public school choice, according to Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based coalition of state officials.

While the program would reach rural schools as well, its premise is built around reforms already under way in Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, and other cities.

"School board members are on the same page, but are trying to find out what works best," said Katrina A. Kelley, the director of the Council of Urban Boards of Education, a division of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Others question whether the scope of project, which Mr. Smith of the Education Department said would not cost more than $1 billion a year, would be great enough.

President Clinton is "essentially nibbling around the edges of what are some major issues that need to be addressed," said Milton Bins, a former deputy director of the city schools' group and the chairman of the Council of 100, a group of black Republicans. "It may be enough to keep you happy through the Christmas holidays, but come January 1 you're back to square one."

Voucher Link

To be enacted, the new initiative and any others must clear Congress, where Republicans have made school vouchers for impoverished children the top priority in their education agenda.

"Republicans have made it clear that some shift [on vouchers] would be the ticket for entry," said William A. Galston, a former domestic-policy adviser to Mr. Clinton who is a professor at the University of Maryland school of public affairs.

Mr. Galston, a centrist Democrat, is urging the administration to support a small, structured private-school-choice program. If it were carefully designed, research would demonstrate whether choice boosts student achievement, he said. The results either would prove most Democrats and public school officials right--or force them to change their opposition, Mr. Galston believes.

But Mr. Galston's proposal would fall flat before the public school lobby and, probably, the administration. Both worked to help defeat a series of GOP private-school-choice proposals this fall. A bipartisan majority in the House stopped an attempt to allow districts to issue vouchers from their portions of a federal block grant. ("Voucher Bill Fails on Bipartisan Vote In House," Nov. 12, 1997.)

In the Senate, Democratic filibusters killed a proposed voucher program for the District of Columbia in a spending bill for the city and tax incentives to benefit parents of private school parents. Mr. Clinton and his team had threatened vetoes if either bill cleared Congress.

Such victories make Mr. Casserly optimistic that a GOP attempt to attach vouchers to any new school legislation would be defeated.

"You run the risk [of losing], but I hope it's an acceptable one," Mr. Casserly said.

While the opportunity-zones plan would serve impoverished rural districts, as well as urban schools, it clearly is intended to spur reform in inner cities.

As Mr. Clinton said, it is designed to help schools follow Chicago's lead in dramatic reforms that include putting schools on probation, requiring summer school on a massive scale, and firing employees in schools where student performance is dismal.

In addition, it is rural states that lack the well-defined standards that would be required to qualify for an opportunity-zone grant, Mr. Pipho said. That could leave schools in Iowa and Wyoming without a chance to compete for the money, he said.

Urban Victory

The opportunity zones, and any plans that follow, mark a victory for the Council of the Great City Schools, which has had a rocky relationship with Mr. Clinton's administration.

In the 1993 debate over the administration's Goals 2000 school reform plan, for example, city schools complained because all of the money would be funneled through state education departments.

"When so much emphasis is put on states, cities tend to do poorly," Mr. Casserly said. As a result, urban centers haven't received grants from the program that are proportionate to their school enrollments, "much less their need," he said.

City schools would have been winners under a new Department of Education formula for distributing $8 billion in money for the Title I program for disadvantaged students, Mr. Smith said. But the 1994 effort failed when Congress decided to protect wealthier areas from cuts. In recent years, Congress blocked the compromise formula from being updated with the latest data.

Relations between urban advocates and administration officials improved in 1996 when Mr. Clinton proposed the $5 billion school construction initiative. They became strained again last spring when the president abandoned the program during the balanced-budget negotiations.

After 15 city school districts volunteered last summer to participate in Mr. Clinton's proposed new national tests, the administration started to consider an urban agenda, Mr. Casserly said. The city schools needed to prove that they are willing to take the risk of having poor test scores made public in order to win federal favors, he said.

Mr. Casserly said his group and other urban advocates are "kicking around" ideas to pitch to the administration.

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