Clinton Renews Pitch for School Construction
President Clinton and his team sought last week to inject new life into their $20 billion school construction proposal, even as the obstacles before that measure and other pieces of the president's education agenda mounted.
Mr. Clinton traveled to Chicago April 8 to tour a newly renovated school, while his deputies took part in a series of 23 local forums to discuss what they say is the need for federal aid for school building and renovation.
"We're having a big fight in Washington because the leaders of the other party and most of the rank and file don't think it's the thing to do," Mr. Clinton said of the construction plan at a fund-raiser in Chicago the evening before he visited one of the city's schools. "They think it's not their problem. They think it's a local problem."
Late last month, the Senate approved a nonbinding fiscal 1999 spending blueprint that does not include enough money for many of Mr. Clinton's education priorities, including his plan to spur $20 billion in school construction by underwriting $10 billion in interest on bonds. The Senate also rejected an attempt by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., to add money for the program.
What's more, on the same day as the president's Chicago school visit, the nation's major tobacco companies said they were pulling out of negotiations with Congress to craft federal tobacco legislation. Mr. Clinton's construction plan would rely on funding from a massive tobacco-litigation settlement linked to the measure.
The House is scheduled to debate its budget resolution after it returns next week from a recess, but Republicans there are hinting that they won't look kindly on Mr. Clinton's school plans.
"Nothing that comes out of Washington arrives without a dizzying number of regulations and red tape," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement shortly after the president's speech last week at Rachel Carson Elementary School on Chicago's South Side. "The president answers to the nation's education woes are big, new federal programs, many of which are like the ones that have failed us in the past."
While Mr. Clinton lauded the progress in Chicago, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley heard from a bevy of superintendents, school board presidents, mayors, and members of Congress that their communities need federal dollars to rehabilitate aging schools in cities or build new ones in growing suburbs.
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In communities ranging from the industrial Northeast to the fast-growing Sunbelt, local officials complained repeatedly that their communities could not foot the school construction bill alone.
"We have schools that are in desperate need of repair," Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., said last week during a one-hour telephone conference call that capped off forums held at 23 local sites. Referring to her hometown of Compton, she said that one school there uses plastic tarps to cover holes in its roof.
"This program is greatly needed," Mr. Gore said at the conclusion of the call. "We're going to work extremely hard to get this program enacted."
Just how the Clinton administration will do so is unclear, however.
When the Senate returns from its spring recess on April 20, it will vote on a series of amendments to a bill to create savings accounts for K-12 expenses that are similar to individual retirement accounts. ("Budget Plan Approved; Tax-Break Debate Set," April 1, 1998.)
Ms. Moseley-Braun will try to replace the savings-account bill with a construction program. But the amendment would need support from at least five Republicans to ensure passage.
The Senate, made up of 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats, has been voting along party lines on school spending issues for much of this year. During last month's budget-resolution debate, the Senate rejected Ms. Moseley-Braun's construction bid along with other Democratic-sponsored measures inspired by earlier Clinton administration proposals: one from Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to create a reserve fund to pay for 100,000 new teachers, and one from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to pay for urban school reform.
In the face of those obstacles, Mr. Clinton is continuing to pitch his plan to the public. In Chicago last week, he publicized a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave the condition of public school buildings an F, a lower grade than it awarded highways, subways, and bridges.
Moreover, Mr. Clinton said, Congress recently passed a highway bill that would increase funding beyond the limits Congress set in last year's plan to balance the budget by fiscal 2002.
"It is in the national interest to know that we have decent infrastructure for our schools, just as much as our national future depends upon a decent network of highways and a decent investment in mass transit," he told students and city officials at Rachel Carson Elementary. "That is the idea that we have to convince the Congress on."
But Mr. Goodling, referring to the upcoming midterm congressional elections, said he is convinced that the president's rhetoric is more about "clever election-year education politics" than the merits of the policies.
To pay for the construction program, the administration is relying on taxes from a tobacco settlement that "is nowhere in sight," Mr. Goodling said in his statement. "Now the president is blaming Congress because he doesn't have the money to pay for his new initiatives," he said. "The White House is playing a political shell game."
Mr. Clinton's Chicago appearance included his endorsement of Ms. Moseley-Braun, who is running for re-election in November. The first-term Illinois Democrat has championed spending on school construction since she arrived in Washington in 1993.