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Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan

By David J. Hoff — February 12, 1997 7 min read


President Clinton issued a 10-point “Call to Action for American Education” last week, featuring proposals designed to help children learn from their earliest days through college and graduate school.

“My number-one priority as president for the next four years is to ensure that Americans have the best education in the world,” Mr. Clinton said in his annual State of the Union Address.

In his fiscal 1998 budget plan, unveiled separately later in the week, Mr. Clinton proposed big spending increases for student aid, school reform, and most other Department of Education programs. (“Clinton Asks $10 Billion Boost for Education,” in This Week’s News.)

The budget proposal and the State of the Union speech signaled the unusually heavy emphasis the president plans to give education during his second term. About one-fourth of the hourlong speech was devoted to his education proposals.

The day after his televised speech to Congress Feb. 4, the president reinforced its messages by traveling to Georgia to trumpet that state’s academic standards and to praise its scholarship program, on which his tax incentives to pay for higher education are based.

“It’s very important that the American people respond to the challenge that I laid out last night to make American education the best in the world, to understand that it won’t be done overnight, and not to be afraid of trying to reach higher standards,” Mr. Clinton said in a speech at Augusta State University.

Republican Concerns

The boldest proposal in his 10-point plan is to create voluntary new tests in reading and mathematics that would allow states to gauge whether students are meeting “national standards of excellence” in those subjects. He also wants to give $105 million to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to help it meet its goal of certifying 100,000 teachers as masters in their profession by 2006.

Mr. Clinton promised to convene a conference this spring to discuss research on how infants develop intellectually “in the first days of life” and how parents can respond to ensure their newborns get a fast start on learning.

The plan also includes staples from his re-election campaign and his first term: tax incentives to help families pay for college; subsidies to defray interest costs for school construction; federally trained volunteers to help young children learn to read; character education that will teach “our children to be good citizens"; money for new charter schools to increase competition among public schools; vouchers for unemployed workers to redeem for job training; and an expansion of federal technology spending to link every school to the Internet.

Although administration officials hailed the ambitious agenda, the Republican leaders in Congress whose support they will need to pass major portions of it were less enthusiastic, especially about Mr. Clinton’s calls for “a national crusade for education standards” and a federally led effort to develop new tests.

“The federal school board is not what we need to be,” said Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will decide whether to provide funds for many of the projects Mr. Clinton proposed. “We need to give the resources to the teachers in the classroom.”

Rep. Bill Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, concurred. “What we don’t want to have are national standards that are mandated and national tests that are mandated,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

Federal Role Debated

The president’s emphasis on national academic standards means the administration and Republican leaders will revisit one of the most contentious education debates of the past four years: Should the federal government play a role in determining the goals for the specific content students should learn?

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who is the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Mr. Clinton’s program would not create the federal intrusion that many critics said they fear.

“He’s saying: ‘In order to make this work, you need to have a test,’ ” Mr. Romer said in an interview after the speech. The proposal “preserves for the states ... the kind of education policy that people want to keep at the local level.”

In his speech, Mr. Clinton said he advocated “not federal government standards, but national standards.”

Republicans opposed a provision in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act--the signature education accomplishment of Mr. Clinton’s first term--that called for creation of a federal panel that would approve model standards that states could consult in writing their own versions.

Because of those objections, Mr. Clinton never appointed the members of that panel and eventually agreed to abolish it.

Now, Mr. Clinton is calling for national standards in reading for 4th graders and mathematics for 8th graders, so that a national test could determine how individual children are performing compared with their peers in other countries. It was not clear last week how those standards would relate to existing standards drawn up by national subject-area groups.

“We must start with the elemental principle that there should be national standards of excellence in education,” Mr. Clinton said in the Feb. 5 speech at Augusta State University. He was quick to add that he would not undermine the power of state and local policymakers to set curricula.

But since the basics of reading and math are universal, what is taught in the nation’s schools should reflect that, he said. “Algebra is the same in Georgia as it is in Utah,” he said.

Testing Plan Detailed

To test whether students meet the standards, the Education Department would offer 90-minute assessments based on the reading test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and math portion of the Third International Math and Science Study, said Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education. States would choose whether to participate.

Mr. Smith said last week that the first round of tests would be ready in 1999, and would be offered to school districts for free that year. In following years, states and schools would pay about $5 per student to participate.

The department is ready to spend $7 million in development costs this year and will seek similar amounts from Congress over the next several years, Mr. Smith said.

The goal is for every student in the United States to perform at the basic level or above on the NAEP reading test. Only 60 percent of those tested scored that well on the most recent test, given in 1994.

While congressional Republicans questioned the far-reaching plan, administration officials were heartened that Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a prominent Republican spokesman on education issues, endorsed it.

“This is welcome news,” Pat Marsserant, a spokeswoman for Mr. Engler, said after the president’s speech. The proposed national tests would give Michigan officials a way to compare their students’ progress against that of their peers throughout the nation and the world--a measure Mr. Engler has long advocated.

Ambitious Plan for Teachers

On the teaching front, Mr. Clinton called for spending $105 million in the next five years to help the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certify 100,000 master teachers during the next decade. “To have the best schools, we must have the best teachers,” he said.

The extra money would allow the private Southfield, Mich.-based project to handle the volume of teachers it wants to certify by 2006. So far, only 511 teachers have passed the rigorous certification process.

Mr. Clinton’s request would not be enough to pay the $2,000 fee each candidate must pay the board for administering and scoring the battery of assessments, but it would provide incentives for states and districts to pay part of the cost.

In the other major points on his education agenda, Mr. Clinton already had announced the basic structure and some of the details either in his re-election campaign or in selective announcements since then.

He repeated last week that he wanted to recruit 100,000 college students as part of an army of 1 million volunteer reading tutors in elementary schools.

Mr. Clinton’s call for tax incentives to help families pay college tuition has changed little since he announced the proposals.

Neither have his plans to subsidize school construction with $5 billion, a proposal the administration estimates would spur $20 billion in construction over the next four years.


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