In New Role, Hillary Clinton Treading on Familiar Policy Turf

By Julie A. Miller — April 14, 1993 9 min read
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WASHINGTON--While Hillary Rodham Clinton’s policymaking role is generally acknowledged to be a decidedly untraditional one for First Ladies, it comes as no surprise to observers of her work on education and child-welfare issues.

For starters, the health-care task force Mrs. Clinton heads bears many similarities to the education-reform panel she chaired in Arkansas, though its size and the scope of its mission are many magnitudes larger.

And there is evidence that Mrs. Clinton has her hand in the education policies of her husband’s Administration, a mode of operation she displayed openly during his governorship.

Rumors that Mrs. Clinton is routinely consulted on education issues forwarded to the White House could not be substantiated. But Education Department sources said Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley discusses pending issues with Mrs. Clinton.

“It’s not true that she signs off on things, but she has been involved,’' said Marshall S. Smith, who is to be nominated as undersecretary of education. “She’s actually less involved now than she was two months ago.’'

Mrs. Clinton also apparently played a role in selecting top Administration appointees. Two people who have worked with Mrs. Clinton on education and children’s issues said she asked them to suggest nominees for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

It is generally assumed in Washington circles that her advocacy was a key reason why Donna E. Shalala, with whom Mrs. Clinton served on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, was named to head up H.H.S.

Finally, Mrs. Clinton’s influence is evident in the Administration’s budget and its rhetoric on issues that have occupied her attention for years.

“They worked so closely together, you couldn’t tell whether an idea was Bill’s or Hillary’s,’' said Sid Johnson, the president of the Arkansas Education Association. “We’d be very surprised here if she didn’t play a big role in Washington.’'

Asked during his campaign whether his wife would help set education policy in a Clinton Administration, Mr. Clinton said: “I can’t say now exactly what she would do, but I sure won’t stop listening to her. She knows a lot more than I do about some of this stuff.’'

Some detractors, however, and not only old hands uncomfortable with a nontraditional First Lady, view Mrs. Clinton’s powerful role less sanguinely. Conservatives, in particular, view her as a big-government liberal who may push her husband away from some of the centrist ideas he espoused as a candidate, including his enthusiastic support for welfare reform.

Some education representatives also express concern privately that Mrs. Clinton will prove to be a powerful player who is unreachable through traditional advocacy.

“Is she going to be running the show behind the scenes?’' one lobbyist asked.

But the education community generally praises Mrs. Clinton’s background. Indeed, supporters often noted during the campaign that Mr. Clinton’s election would put two education advocates in the White House.

“We have not one, but two people who have been personally, substantively involved in the education-reform movement for many years,’' said Michael Cohen, an education analyst who is now a consultant to Mr. Riley.

The Arkansas Reforms

Mrs. Clinton admitted herself back in 1983 that she knew little about education when Mr. Clinton appointed her to chair a committee charged with recommending new standards for Arkansas schools.

“Just like he’s done with health care now, he assigned her to what he saw as the most pressing issue of the time,’' said Cora McHenry, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association and a member of the Education Standards Committee.

“Hillary knew she wasn’t an expert; her primary role was to keep us on task,’' Ms. McHenry said. “The fact that she wasn’t an educator was probably an advantage. She could ask tough questions and get us away from the traditional parameters of doing things.’'

After months of hearings and deliberations, the committee issued a set of recommendations to raise graduation and curriculum standards, and essentially to force weak districts to merge.

The Clintons also added to their reform plan two more controversial elements: a large sales-tax increase and a teacher-competency test, an idea that earned them the ire of the A.E.A. for years to come. Mrs. Clinton said that her committee heard frequent complaints about incompetent teachers and that she and her husband knew such a test would help sell the tax increase to skeptical legislators.

Both Clintons lobbied for the plan, but Arkansas observers say it was Mrs. Clinton who became most identified with it. After presenting the plan to the legislature, Rep. Lloyd R. George reportedly quipped, “I think we’ve elected the wrong Clinton.’'

Mrs. Clinton was also involved with other efforts to improve the state’s social services for children. She served on the state’s Rural Health Advisory Committee and on the board of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and she helped found Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a group that lobbied for increased funding of child-welfare programs.

She was also the primary supporter of the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters--commonly known as HIPPY--a highly regarded family-education program for disadvantaged preschoolers that originated in Israel.

A Committee Veteran

Mrs. Clinton went on to serve on several national education committees and boards, including a panel that recommended expansion and a new governance structure for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1987.

She was a member of the W.T. Grant Foundation Commission on Youth and America’s Future, which in 1988 published “The Forgotten Half,’' a report focusing on the need to improve occupational training for non-college-bound youths.

“She saw the connection between the older adolescents and the work she had done on issues like child care and the needs of working women,’' said Samuel Halperin, the commission’s executive director. “She saw the whole thing in context.’'

Mrs. Clinton was also a member of the board of directors for the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Rochester, N.Y.-based think tank.

Ira Magaziner, a corporate consultant who is now a top Clinton adviser and is working with Mrs. Clinton on health-care reform, was also a member. He chaired an N.C.E.E. commission that produced “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages,’' a report that strongly criticized American worker training and advocated, among other reforms, youth-apprenticeship programs. Mrs. Clinton later headed the effort to publicize the report.

“I wanted someone with the respect of the people who were going to make the decisions, starting with the governors; someone who is articulate, understands the issues, and has the political skill and judgement to bring it off,’' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the N.C.E.E. “She helped to create a legislative agenda that the current Administration is following up on aggressively.’'

Indeed, the influence of both youth-training commissions is evident in Clinton Administration proposals for youth service and the school-to-work transition.

A Cozy Relationship

But the advocacy group Mrs. Clinton is most closely associated with is the C.D.F., whose president, Marian Wright Edelman, she has described as a mentor. Mrs. Clinton chaired the organization’s board for many years before she resigned during the campaign, turning the gavel over to Ms. Shalala.

Mrs. Clinton appeared at a C.D.F. prayer meeting during the Democratic National Convention last year, and both Clintons made their first post-election appearance in Washington at a C.D.F. fund-raiser.

More substantively, the Clinton Administration has proposed huge funding increases for the programs the C.D.F. has lobbied hardest for, such as Head Start.

“If you look at the Clinton budget, you can clearly see C.D.F.'s whole agenda,’' said a House appropriations aide. “Marian Edelman’s got a lot to smile about these days.’'

The cozy relationship between the C.D.F. and the Administration was boldly illustrated by a recent news conference where Ms. Shalala unveiled a plan to provide free immunizations for all children by 1997.

In introducing Ms. Edelman, Secretary Shalala said: “I wish Hillary were here today, as we are fulfilling a promise to you.’'

In an interview shortly before the November election, however, Ms. Shalala said that Mrs. Clinton’s personal agenda is not necessarily identical to the C.D.F.'s.

“It’s important to understand that Hillary does not come from Washington, but from a state, and she probably sees the world somewhat differently from people who work on these issues in Washington,’' Ms. Shalala said. “Hillary probably has more confidence in the ability of state and local governments to work with programs.’'

“She’ll be an advocate for the programs, but she’ll also bring visibility to what people are doing in their communities and will be concerned with making the programs work together,’' Ms. Shalala said.

A Big-Government Liberal?

But Mrs. Clinton’s critics see her as an advocate of big government, and particularly of government intervention in family life.

During the Presidential campaign, conservative Republicans portrayed her as an anti-family radical, seizing on scholarly legal articles she wrote in the 1970’s that advocated children be given increased legal rights in some cases.

That furor has largely died down, but fears that Mrs. Clinton will be an influential advocate for bigger government have not.

Blant Hurt, an Arkansas businessman, recently published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal comparing Mrs. Clinton’s current efforts with her tenure as Arkansas’ “education czar.’' During that earlier period, he said, she “looked at a public school system already plagued by centralization and bureaucracy, and proposed to reform it with more centralization and bureaucracy.’'

“More government interference is not the way, in education or health care,’' he said in an interview.

Mr. Hurt, who has founded a local program to help pay private school tuition for disadvantaged children, ticked off a list of statistics about Arkansas education to argue that the Clintons’ reforms did not work.

Indeed, the record is mixed. School course offerings have improved, graduation and college-entrace rates have risen, and education spending and teacher salaries have increased dramatically. But student test scores have shown only modest improvement, scores on college-entrance examinations have not budged, and more than half of Arkansas students need remedial courses when they enter college.

Nonetheless, Arkansas educators praise the reforms--and Mrs. Clinton’s role in enacting them--despite teachers’ previous ire over the competency test.

National education experts who are acquainted with Mrs. Clinton offer similar praise.

“She’s simply one of the most knowledgeable people in the field,’' Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “That can only help.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1993 edition of Education Week as In New Role, Hillary Clinton Treading on Familiar Policy Turf

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