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Landmark Education Bill Nears Passage : Legislation: Senate expected to join with House. Administration measure sets national academic standards, helps states to attain them.

March 26, 1994|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Clinton Administration legislation that would establish national academic standards moved toward final congressional approval Friday night, with the Senate expected to pass the measure before beginning a two-week Easter recess.

The bill, known as Goals 2000, would establish a National Education Standards and Improvement Council to oversee the adoption of academic standards by the states.

"In the years ahead, Goals 2000 will be regarded as a turning point in American education," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a chief sponsor of the legislation. "Parents and local communities will finally be able to know what every student should learn in core subjects like English, history, mathematics and science."

Kennedy and others pushed hard for congressional approval before the recess, which begins today. Delaying passage of the legislation until after April 1 would mean sacrificing $100 million for the program in the 1994 budget.

The final Senate vote was delayed by a filibuster by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) over wording on voluntary school prayer in the measure.

Senate supporters and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley expressed confidence that they had the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster and bring the measure to a vote.

The House approved the measure, 307 to 120, earlier in the week.

Goals 2000 would write into law the national education goals, which were first proposed in 1989 by the nation's governors and the George Bush Administration.

The Clinton Administration has asked for $700 million in fiscal 1995 to support the goals, and the legislation calls for expenditures of $1 billion in each of the following three years to help states establish standards and improve training for teachers so they can better assist students in reaching the standards.

"Goals 2000 will lead to the establishment of voluntary national standards," Riley said. "They will be guides for parents and teachers and communities to judge the quality of their schools. Now, we want our schools to be excellent but we don't know exactly what that means."

Across the nation, teachers, principals and school district officials voiced mixed opinions Friday about the major new role that the federal government would play under the legislation.

Some said the measure is unnecessary because their states and school districts are engaged in their own reforms. Others complained that such high standards are largely irrelevant to their pupils because most are poor or do not speak English and have a difficult time reaching minimum standards.

"I don't think we need them to tell us we should comply with the standards," said Della Zaher, principal at Miami Shores Elementary School in Dade County, Fla. "Our state has its own goals."

Riley has said the measure is likely to erase "low expectations, which have too often held our children hostage and restrained our nation from achieving its full potential."

But Zaher said national academic standards will end up being largely irrelevant for schools like hers. Although Miami Shores Elementary has won many awards as an outstanding school, her students face great obstacles in learning, she said. The largest single group of students are Haitian immigrants, most of whom are very poor.

"I do have high expectations for every child," Zaher said. "But if you give our children a standardized test, they are not going to perform up to the national average."

But in many other school districts, the effort was received enthusiastically.

"We've become such a mobile society that it's really very important that goals from state to state be consistent," said Steve Van Zant, principal at Wilson Middle School in Exeter, Calif. "This legislation shows it's not just 50 states working in separate directions, but all of us working together to make our schools better."

Eddie Lucero, principal at Griegos Elementary School in Albuquerque, said the new law "will make a difference because it gives us a common ground to start with. It will help us accept that we're a global society."

Officials in some states that already are developing their own standards said they will benefit from a national framework.

"That saves you money if you don't have to start from scratch for every subject in every grade," said Barbara Ahrens an official with the Denver Public School District.

In Colorado, the Legislature has ordered school districts to adopt standards and assessments by 1997 but has not provided any money. Ahrens said she hopes that some of the money the federal government has earmarked for Goals 2000 will come Denver's way.

One of the biggest challenges is in designing ways to judge the achievement levels of students who are disabled or speak a language other than English.

"Is this going to be a three-tiered system or are we going to hold all the children to the same expectations?" Ahrens asked.

Developing the standards and methods of testing students as well as teacher training is all very expensive, she said.

On the other hand, federal funds are limited.

"We all wish that we could do more," Kennedy said. "But education is primarily a state and local responsibility.

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