The top Democrat in the House of Representatives last week previewed his party’s education priorities should its members win control of the chamber in next month’s elections.
Providing federal funding for universal preschool for children ages 3 to 5 and the hiring of 1 million new teachers and principals over the next 10 years topped an ambitious agenda set forth by Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt during a speech at American University here on Oct. 4. He did not provide a price tag for the package—Democrats said they wanted the speech to encapsulate more of a vision than a specific legislative proposal.
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|The text of Mr. Gephardt’s speech, “Educating America: A National Challenge for the 21st Century,” is available from the House Democratic Leader site.|
The Missouri Democrat called on Congress to help “revolutionize” public schools at a time when many students come from families and communities that he said fall short of providing the nurturing that children need. “Instead of keeping pace with modern society, many schools are trailing behind,” he added.
Today, Republicans hold only a six-seat majority in the House, and more Republican incumbents are stepping down this year than Democrats. Political observers believe Democrats have a strong chance of regaining control of the chamber, which they lost to the GOP in 1994.
Not surprisingly, Republican leaders immediately criticized Mr. Gephardt’s speech.
“It clearly outlines a big-government, Washington-knows-best approach to dealing with local education issues,” Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a written response. “Mr. Gephardt has made it clear that in a Democrat Congress, focus would once again shift back to quantity and process. Under Republican leadership, we have placed the focus on quality and results.”
Mr. Goodling is retiring at the end of this Congress. If the Democrats win control of the House, his chairmanship will likely go to Rep. George Miller, the outspoken Californian who has championed teacher-quality and early-childhood issues. Mr. Miller helped draft the plan Mr. Gephardt laid out.
The priorities “are the touchstones by which education legislation should be measured,” Mr. Miller said in an interview last week. He denied that the Democratic plan would translate into greater federal bureaucracy and undue interference in local affairs. “In fact, where necessary, the federal government should provide resources so communities can provide results,” he said.
In his speech, Mr. Gephardt listed five areas where he argues the federal government should help schools, an agenda that closely reflects Vice President Al Gore’s platform in the current presidential campaign.
First, early-childhood learning should be a priority, Mr. Gephardt said. In addition to helping provide access to universal preschool, the Democrats would take steps to improve the training and pay of child-care workers and put more money into Head Start, he said—ideas that Mr. Gore, the Democratic nominee for president, supports.
Mr. Gephardt also pledged to provide financial incentives to help states and districts hire a million new teachers and principals over the next 10 years, and help provide aid for salary increases, teacher testing, and teacher training as well.
Mr. Gore has not called for hiring a million new educators, but he has pitched teacher-testing and -training initiatives.
To help keep schools safe, the minority leader proposed hiring more counselors and spending more on after- school programs, but also asking every school to adopt “real standards of discipline and behavior.” Federal aid for school construction costs would also be a priority. And getting more technology into the classroom would be a top goal, along with encouraging more students to take mathematics and science classes, Mr. Gephardt said.
Some education groups praised the strategy.
“We think all these ideas sound wonderful,” said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “We’re going to be challenged around some of the costs, but nonetheless, we think it’s important.”
Mr. Gephardt also sounded concerns over what he called a “quiet crisis of family"—more parents working longer hours and not spending enough time with their children.
“We have failed to fully understand that our families have changed dramatically, and that there are major new demands on our public schools, and we as a people have incurred incredible costs as a result,” he said. “The bottom line is, children are not getting the time and attention they need from parents, and public schools are not now prepared to fill that breach.”
But, he added, parents are also the most important figures in their children’s lives and must be “front and center” in their educations. The federal government should not try to use a one-size- fits-all approach in its programs or try to run local schools, he added.