Clinton's 100,000-Teacher Plan Faces Hurdles

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When President Clinton called last week for legislation to help schools hire 100,000 new teachers, he received what may have been a telling response from Congress.

During Mr. Clinton's State of the Union Address, Democratic members stood to cheer twice in the course of the president's three-sentence description of the program.

Across the aisle, a few Republicans applauded politely, but most sat stiffly in their seats as the president outlined his plan to reduce the average student-to-teacher ratio to 18-to-1 in 1st through 3rd grade classrooms.

After the speech, Republicans said they remained quiet because they are wary of the federal government's committing $1.1 billion next year and another $11 billion in the following six years to the project.

The new spending is especially difficult to justify, they said, given Mr. Clinton's pronouncement in the same State of the Union speech that all surplus money in the federal budget be dedicated to rebuilding the Social Security trust fund.

"We don't have money for everything he's talking about, especially if we want to save every [surplus] dollar for Social Security," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

In addition to budget hurdles, Mr. Clinton's proposal faces questions from those who say it's more important to improve the quality of current and future teachers than to hire new ones.

What's more, some educators wonder whether the president's program would be attractive to high-poverty districts, which may be unable to match the federal contribution as the initiative would require.

Regardless, advocates of the idea say the program will be politically popular and educationally sound.

"We're talking about lower class sizes in the early grades--one of the most important things we can do," said Sandra Feldman, the president of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers. "It's not just a question going out to find 100,000 new teachers."

Political Appeal

Despite the reaction within the Republican majority, the political allure of lowering class sizes is appealing to some in its ranks.

Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., is pushing his own plan to reach Mr. Clinton's goal of adding 100,000 new teachers.

Mr. Paxon's proposal would cut off funding for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Americorps federal community-service programs--two hallmarks of the president's first term--and dedicate the money to the teaching initiative.

The administration, however, has balked at Mr. Paxon's approach to paying for the program.

"He has a very wrongheaded way about how we would ... pay for such a proposal, since it would take the support that we need for public education back to the days when the Republicans were trying to dismantle or do away with the Department of Education," said White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry.

Mr. Clinton would pay for the program by adding $1.50 a pack to cigarette taxes, leaving Mr. Paxon's solution as the preferred option for anti-tax members of Congress.

Some Republicans would like flexibility to be the watchword in any such effort.

"If we can do this where it's a block grant and you have specific ways to pay for it [by cutting other programs], I think it's possible," Mr. Souder said.

Parallel to Police Aid

Finding federal money may not be the only problem.

President Clinton has proposed that local districts partially match the federal funds intended for new teacher salaries. That may be a barrier to participation, school leaders say.

An existing federal funding program designed to help communities hire 100,000 police officers has been slowed by a similar matching requirement.

In the first two years of the program, only 42 percent of the nation's law-enforcement agencies applied for Department of Justice grants to pay 75 percent of the salaries of officers hired to fill new positions, according to a 1996 study by the General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress.

In a survey of police departments that declined to apply, 62 percent said they couldn't pay their portion of the officers' salaries or the full cost of those salaries once federal funding ran dry after three years, the GAO found.

That conclusion is similar to the findings from a survey of sheriffs' offices. "The biggest issue was the match," said Ken Goodwin, the assistant executive director of the National Sheriffs Association, a 20,000-member organization based in Alexandria, Va. "In the age of shrinking budgets, it becomes very difficult to pay for officers."

School districts would face similar problems if they had to pay between 10 percent and 50 percent of the new teachers' salaries, as the president's plan would require.

For schools, the long-term impact could be dramatic because most teachers eventually win tenure and become permanent fixtures in local budgets, according to one Washington lobbyist.

"What they're forcing you to do is redirect your resources for the long term," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

But administration officials predict the sliding scale for low-income areas won't deter them from participating.

"It's a pretty good deal for them," said Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "I don't think it's going to scare them away when it's that low."

And, unlike the money for police, the teacher subsidies would be permanent, Mr. Smith said.

While a few Republicans have latched on to the goal of 100,000 new teachers, a coalition spanning conservative GOP to centrist Democratic organizations is questioning the premise of hiring new teachers.

"The U.S. does not have a serious aggregate teacher-quantity problem today, but rather, a problem of quality (many teachers don't know their subject well) and distribution (few of the best teach the neediest kids)," the coalition, which includes the Heritage Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the Brookings Institution, wrote in a Jan. 21 memo to members of Congress.

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Web Resources
  • Read "Teacher Shortages in America," from Recruiting New Teachers. The organization was founded to "raise esteem for teaching, expand the pool of prospective teachers, and improve the nation's teacher recruitment and development policies and practices."
  • Read President Clinton's remarks on inner-city teacher shortages to the 1997 NAACP National Convention.
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