Clinton Testing Proposal Pits Calif. Officials

By David J. Hoff — April 09, 1997 4 min read


At the White House last week, California’s top school official said the state would embrace the national tests the Clinton administration plans to offer in two years.

“We are confident that a vast majority of school districts will come on board voluntarily,” Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, said at a meeting with President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and a bevy of technology executives who also endorsed the tests.

But on the other side of the country, the response from the state’s Republican governor was simple: Not so fast.

“We haven’t seen enough there for anybody to give an endorsement,” said Dan Edwards, a spokesman for California’s office of child development and education, which, unlike Ms. Eastin, is under the direct control of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Last week’s events show the dicey politics involved in recruiting states and schools to participate in the president’s plan to assess the reading skills of 4th graders and the math knowledge of 8th graders. Mr. Clinton has put the voluntary national tests at the top of his second-term agenda. (“Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

On one coast, Mr. Clinton basked in support from Ms. Eastin, California’s superintendent of public instruction, and more than 200 executives of technology companies--many of them Republicans.

On the other, a Republican politician who at one time had national political ambitions spoke for the social conservatives who abhor Mr. Clinton’s proposal.

And both sides have well-rehearsed arguments.

A 4th grade reading test “would be very compatible with our quality-control efforts” in California, Ms. Eastin said at the White House. The companion 8th grade math assessment “would not only be compatible, it would be downright helpful.”

But conservatives say Mr. Clinton’s proposal would create an unprecedented role for the federal government that most parents and local school officials don’t want.

“We don’t think you can set national standards that can be considered world-class,” Mr. Edwards said. “When you factor in all of the concerns of all the states, you end up with a watered-down product.”

In the middle are almost 1,000 school districts in the state, which Ms. Eastin acknowledged she cannot force to participate in Mr. Clinton’s testing plan.

Campaigning for Support

“It’s a pretty recalcitrant bunch of people” in the state, said Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent in Riverside, Calif. “My guess is if they are encouraged by the state, a lot of the locals will jump on.”

But that’s not guaranteed, especially in the face of objections from Gov. Wilson and the members of the state board of education he appoints.

To gather support, Ms. Eastin, a former state legislator, is acting as if she’s running for the superintendent’s office she won in a statewide election in 1994.

“We are going to campaign with business leaders to make sure this is something California embraces,” she told reporters outside the White House after last week’s meeting. “We’re an unbeatable group. We’re bipartisan. We’re the whole state of California.”

The business community will promote Mr. Clinton’s tests in meetings with local officials and through media campaigns, said John Doerr, a partner in a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company that underwrites technology businesses. Mr. Doerr, at Mr. Gore’s urging, rounded up support from the chief executives of such companies as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, America Online, and other household names.

“It’s a very smart strategy to get CEOs involved,” said Mr. Houston, who attended last week’s meeting along with several other national education leaders. “If you get the money people on board, it changes the geometry of it.”

‘Powerful New Momentum’

But support from the business community does not guarantee success among all Republicans.

In recent years, Mr. Wilson has vetoed a state-assessment bill and held up the state’s money from the federal Goals 2000 school reform program, citing concerns similar to those expressed by social and religious conservatives.

The state’s assessment system asked questions about sexuality, parents’ beliefs, and other issues that “clearly were inappropriate,” Mr. Edwards said. What’s more, it did not assign specific scores to individual students.

The governor has appointed a panel to write new state standards and create an assessment that would yield individual results.

Even though the tests Mr. Clinton is proposing would give similar results, the governor is unlikely to buy the final product because it will come from the federal government, Mr. Edwards said.

Regardless of the squabbles in California, Mr. Clinton last week reminded testing supporters and opponents that the concept is still high on his agenda.

“The most important thing of all is that we know whether we are learning what we need to know,” he said. “And that requires something America has put off doing for too long: the embracing of a genuine commitment to national standards of learning for our young people.”

The endorsements of Ms. Eastin and the technology executives gives “powerful new momentum” to his proposal, he said. Ms. Eastin joins the governors of Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina as state leaders who plan to promote Mr. Clinton’s test to schools.

If all students in those states participated, Mr. Clinton said last week, 20 percent of the children in the nation would be involved.

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