Clinton School Plans Advance on Some Fronts

By David J. Hoff — December 10, 1997 5 min read


President Clinton began the year promising that education would be the hallmark of his second term. He ends it with a mixed report card on his 10-point “Call to Action for American Education.”

The president delivered on his 1996 campaign promise for higher education tax incentives, getting almost everything he wanted from a reluctant Congress. But he failed to keep his national testing program on the fast track he laid out in his 1997 State of the Union Address, and he still could lose the larger fight over whether to create the assessments at all.

Many other pieces of the 10-point plan he unveiled in that same address are partly in place. The federal government will substantially increase spending on school technology and charter schools in the current fiscal year, for example. It’s on its way toward expanding the Head Start program to serve 1 million preschoolers. It also started a $40 million grant program for after-school projects. (“Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

A reading initiative focusing on young children is halfway through Congress, but it has changed substantially from what Mr. Clinton proposed. Likewise, the president’s plan to create vouchers for job training has cleared the House, but not the Senate. (“Clinton Administration Shifts Gears on Reading Bill,” Nov. 19, 1997.)

The only place Mr. Clinton and his team failed to deliver at is in their promise to provide $5 billion to help underwrite the cost of financing school construction. He and his advisers say, however, that they will propose a new construction plan in their fiscal 1999 budget, scheduled to be submitted in late January.

“We’ve made progress on most, but not all of them,” Michael Cohen, the president’s education adviser, said of Mr. Clinton’s education objectives. “In sum, we’ve done quite well.”

Taking Credit

While the administration’s critics concede that the Clinton team has chalked up some victories, they also complain that it is hogging the stage.

“He’s a master at taking credit ... for something he had little to do with,” Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview.

“Clinton is very savvy when it comes to talking about education reform,” said Nina H. Shokraii, the education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

The president touts the rapid growth in the number of charter schools, but the federal government has played only a minor role in passing state laws and paying for the estimated 700 such schools now operating, Ms. Shokraii said.

Mr. Clinton also boasts of his role in more than doubling federal spending for school technology, even though Congress appropriated $39 million more than the president requested in his fiscal 1998 budget, Mr. Goodling added.

Even so, supporters and critics alike say Mr. Clinton has been an effective spokesman for education.

“The president has done what a president can do: use the bully pulpit to remind the public of the importance of education,” Mr. Goodling said.

Testing Troubles

Mr. Clinton can lay claim to accomplishing major changes in how the next generation of students will pay for college. Last summer, Congress passed a $40 billion package of higher education tax breaks as part of a five-year package designed to balance the budget and provide tax cuts. (“Budget Pact Includes College Tax Credits,” Aug. 6, 1997.)

The incentives will arrive in a variety of formats starting in the 1998 tax year.

Students or their parents will receive federal income-tax credits of up to $1,500 for the first $2,000 they spend on higher education during the first two years of college.

For juniors and seniors, the credit will amount to 20 percent of the first $10,000 of their costs.

The tax measure also created new savings incentives to pay for college, modeled after individual retirement accounts. Under a separate spending law, the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students will be $3,000, an increase of $300.

“The bottom line is: I think this is the best year that higher education has had in two decades,” said Terry W. Hartle, the vice president of governmental relations for the American Council on Education, a Washington-based umbrella group representing colleges and universities.

But while the president realized most of his college objectives, he failed to get what he wanted in K-12 testing.

He originally tried to circumvent Congress and spend existing Department of Education money to create the voluntary 4th grade reading assessments and 8th grade math tests by the spring of 1999. That would have required validating test questions in field and pilot assessments this fall.

Faced with congressional opposition to the testing from conservatives and liberals alike, the administration agreed to halt the pilot- and field-testing during fiscal 1998, which began Oct. 1, so the independent National Assessment Governing Board could review the project and make recommendations for its future. (“White House, GOP Craft Agreement on Testing,” Nov. 12, 1997.)

“It might have been unreasonable to expect that in one session of Congress such a notable departure in national education policy would be accomplished,” said Michael Timpane, a senior adviser for education policy for the Washington office of the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.

Still, the tests’ future is uncertain. Many of the forces, especially those on the right, that delayed it this year appear to be dead set against national testing of any kind, even the voluntary assessments that Mr. Clinton proposes.

White House officials are hoping that by next fall, when the testing plan’s fate is decided, potential test items and final specifications will ease critics’ fears that the tests would usurp local curriculum decisions while also failing to adequately challenge students.

“By the time Congress has to take another look at this, there will be a lot of additional work done to make the debate more concrete and alleviate some of the fears,” Mr. Cohen said.

Focusing Attention

Although some say the president exaggerates his role in the expansion of education technology and charter schools, supporters of those causes say his public statements have been invaluable in swaying public opinion in favor of them.

“We’ve had lots of fits and starts,” said Frank B. Withrow, the director of education for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Classroom of the Future project at Wheeling University in West Virginia. “But the fact that the president has pushed [education technology] gives it a great deal of visibility.”

Whatever Mr. Clinton accomplishes in Congress next year, he will maintain a busy schedule of education events, Mr. Cohen said.

“I believe that education is a big part of this, and I believe that the economics is a big part of this,” Mr. Clinton said at a town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio, last week on race relations. “I’ve spent most of my public life--more than 20 years--working on those two things.”

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