Clinton Seeks Teacher Hires, Small Classes

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For the second year in a row, President Clinton touted education as his highest priority in his State of the Union Address.

But it will be another year before he--and the nation's schools--learn whether that priority translates into action.

Twelve months after his first such State of the Union declaration, Mr. Clinton is taking credit for new tax deductions for college tuition, expanded federal spending for charter schools and classroom technology, and a literacy program in which students from 850 colleges tutor young children.

Next year at this time, he hopes he will have as much to brag about. His agenda for 1998 includes a plan to reduce class sizes, build new schools and renovate existing ones, expand a recently launched after-school program, and start a reform project for urban schools.

"We have opened wide the doors of the world's best system of higher education," Mr. Clinton said in the Jan. 27 speech to a joint session of Congress. "Now we must make our public elementary and secondary schools the world's best as well by raising standards, raising expectations, and raising accountability."

While Mr. Clinton accomplished much of his agenda last year, this year Republicans are ready with a wish list of their own and will respond aggressively throughout the year. The president also has still-unfolding allegations of impropriety to contend with that could drain away his powers of persuasion on Capitol Hill.

The day after Mr. Clinton's speech, Senate Republicans formally introduced their eight-point school reform bill.

It includes tax-free savings accounts for private school tuition, school voucher demonstrations, increased federal special education spending, an expanded federal block grant, and a promise that a higher percentage of federal money will reach classrooms.

"This initiative would help parents send their children to the very best schools possible," Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., the bill's chief sponsor, said in a statement. "By making sure more money goes directly to the classroom, our proposal gives local schools greater freedom to solve the specific challenges confronting their communities."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has endorsed the Coverdell bill and promised to support it as an alternative to the president's program.

Dueling Priorities

The competing agendas will put the two parties at odds through much of the year, which politically will culminate in November's midterm congressional elections.

Republicans will push for vouchers and aid to school districts free of many federal restrictions, while Democrats will follow Mr. Clinton's call to address specific problems, with much of the money targeted to low-income areas.

"In order to make education a priority, you have to be relevant to what's needed," said Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, a Detroit Democrat who is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. That panel will play a key role in the class-size-reduction and school construction bills. Republicans "aren't going to be relevant by simply nibbling around the edges," Mr. Levin said last week.

But Republicans say the president's agenda is too prescriptive and would usurp decisions traditionally made by local communities.

"Bill Clinton made a very good case tonight for eliminating state and local governments and school boards," Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said sarcastically to reporters shortly after the State of the Union speech.

Mr. Kasich's committee will have a lot of new education spending to review in the president's fiscal 1999 budget proposal. Total new spending on K-12 education would exceed $25 billion under the multiyear proposals, which cover a wide range of issues.

President Clinton wants to spend $12 billion over seven years to reduce the size of the average 1st through 3rd grade class from 22 to 18 students; $10 billion over 10 years on subsidies to pay interest on school construction bonds; $1 billion over five years for after-school programs; and $37 million in the first year of a five-year program.

The agenda builds on the school reform program for high-poverty schools that Mr. Clinton announced late last year. The White House will request $1.5 billion over five years for what it is calling education opportunity zones, it said last week. ("Clinton School Plans Advance on Some Fronts," Dec. 10, 1997.)

The president did not describe the items in his plan as a full-scale urban initiative, but their size and design will be a boon for cities, according to a lobbyist for urban schools.

"They're not only large, they're well targeted, usually on poverty. The combination of these things for us makes it a terrific package," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, a group representing 50 large urban districts. "It's probably the best initiative for improving urban schools that I've seen in the 21 years I've been doing this."

Outside the Beltway

Far from Washington, the president received similar praise on a two-stop swing through the Midwest the day after the speech.

In Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and La Crosse, Wis., Mr. Clinton renewed his call to make "our elementary and secondary education as excellent as our higher education is."

"It's energizing," said Florence Hyatt, a library media specialist at Onalaska High School in Onalaska, Wis., and the president of the Coulee Region United Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "I'm just impressed that we have a president that understands that we need to improve elementary and secondary education," said Ms. Hyatt, who attended the La Crosse event.

"I got a chance to tell him I was appreciative he has kept public education on the front burner," said Richard Swantz, who will soon retire as the superintendent of the La Crosse public schools and was among a group of guests who joined Mr. Clinton on stage and met with him after he addressed the crowd that gathered downtown.

But others at the La Crosse speech were skeptical about the chances Mr. Clinton would deliver on his promises.

"It sounds good," Kevin Kravik, a Sparta, Wis., High School government and politics teacher, said of the class-size-reduction plan. "When I see it in my classroom, I'll believe it." Mr. Kravik now has 27 students per class.

Past Setbacks

While the president has set an agenda, there's no guarantee that Congress will pass it.

Last year, federal lawmakers enacted much of what Mr. Clinton outlined in his State of the Union Address. Members created new tax credits of up to $1,500 a year for parents of college freshmen and sophomores and up to $2,000 for upperclassmen and adults returning to school. They almost doubled federal spending on charter schools and education technology. They provided federal support for teachers working to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Even with those victories, however, President Clinton suffered some significant setbacks.

For example, Mr. Clinton last year cited his plan to start new national achievement tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics as his top education priority.

But planning for the test is now stalled after congressional opponents moved oversight of the project to the National Assessment Governing Board.

The board last month delayed the testing's start date until at least the spring of 2001--two years behind the president's original schedule. ("Ed. Dept. Wants More Data From Students Taking NAEP," in This Week's News.)

Last year's school construction initiative didn't even make it that far. It died in the early stages of balanced-budget negotiations by agreement of the White House and GOP leaders. This year, the administration will double the amount of its request.

"We have a much better feeling than last year," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a briefing with reporters the day before the president's speech. "Some of these things it takes some time to be thought out by the public and considered."

But after the State of the Union Address, Republicans reinforced their opposition to federal support for school construction.

Mr. Clinton has other factors working against him.

The legislative calendar for the year is short because members will spend significant time campaigning for re-election.

That will leave little time for the considerable debate that would be needed for the laundry list of new programs the president proposes.

What's more, presidential influence in Congress traditionally ebbs in the second year of a chief executive's second term.

Mr. Clinton may feel this problem acutely because of the recent charges that erupted surrounding his alleged relationship with a former White House intern.

Even so, administration officials remained confident last week.

"These things are important improvements," said Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "I'd give them a pretty good chance."

Special correspondent Mark Pitsch in La Crosse, Wis., and Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack in Washington contributed to this story.

Web Only

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Web Resources
  • Read responses from Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, and Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to the the State of the Union Address.
  • Read the full text of the Republican response to the State of the Union Address from the U.S. Senate Web site.
  • Read various criticisms of points made in the State of the Union Address from the Web site. The site includes both praise and criticism of Mr. Clinton's childcare initiatives from the Children's Defense Fund and the Family Research Council.
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