SELMA, Calif. — President Clinton, raising one of his favorite issues as Congress returns to work, said Tuesday that he will turn funding for federally subsidized college loans into a major battleground during this fall's budget debate.
"In California you have had enough of cutting education," Clinton told students and parents at a middle school in this Central Valley town 15 miles south of Fresno. "We need to invest more in education, and we can do that.
"Tell the Congress and the President you want the budget balanced but you want us to invest in education and the future," he said. "We don't want to be penny wise and pound foolish."
Despite his fighting words, Clinton sought to cast himself as the champion of moderation in the budget debate and said that Republicans should bow to his requests for more education funding as a matter of sweet reason.
"There are some who say that there should be no compromise this autumn. But I say that good people of goodwill want us to find common ground, want us to find honorable compromise," Clinton said.
He said that the coming 90 days of debate over the budget will force Congress "to choose what direction we're going to take."
Before he left California for Washington, the President also taught a class at the middle school.
The President's choice of education as an issue reflects two realities about this fall's budget battle: Most Americans want Congress' Republican leaders to succeed in enacting a plan to balance the budget, but a large majority--as big as 71% in some polls--agrees with Clinton that education funding should be protected.
As part of their drive to balance the budget in seven years, Republican leaders have proposed cuts in education programs that they consider inefficient. The Administration estimates the total of the GOP-proposed cuts at $36 billion over seven years.
By contrast, the White House used Clinton's first-day-of-school visit to announce four modest grants to state departments of education, including $250,000 for California, to develop "character education" curricula promoting such virtues as hard work, responsibility and respect.
On the second day of a campaign-style swing, Clinton spent a regulation 50-minute period teaching a class of eighth-graders at Abraham Lincoln Middle School, a handsome two-year-old facility on the edge of a tidy middle-class neighborhood in Selma, which calls itself the "raisin capital of the world."
The President repeated his education theme for the 12- and 13-year-olds but put it in more personal terms. "There's one thing you need to know," he told them. "If you look at people your parents' and your grandparents' age . . . [there are] good people who are working harder but never getting a raise and don't have a stable income. And almost exclusively . . . the issue is education."
But Clinton ducked a chance to challenge a declaration made Monday by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. Dole, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said that schools should abandon most bilingual education. About one-quarter of Lincoln's students are in bilingual programs at their parents' request. Some of the schoolchildren are taught all their core subjects in Spanish, in a program that is locally considered highly successful, administrators said.
Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry said that the President "responded to Sen. Dole in the most effective way possible: teaching a classroom of young Americans about the values that have nurtured American democracy."
He said that Clinton believes students need to learn English as well as possible as "a primary tool of the 21st-Century American economy. . . . It may be, under some circumstances, that bilingual education can advance those goals, so you shouldn't rule out bilingual education."
Clinton later met with two dozen San Joaquin Valley farmers in a Fresno Air Terminal hangar, a decidedly conservative group that included winemaker Ernest Gallo. The meeting was closed to the press because of the expectation that it would be rough going for Clinton, but it was amazingly cordial, according to some who attended the gathering.
The farmers, who traded in their blue jeans and hats for suits and ties, had come to the session with Clinton carrying a long list of complaints about onerous environmental laws and water reforms that seemingly give more weight to fish than farmers.
They left the 75-minute meeting impressed with Clinton's grasp of the issues, if not believing he was on their side.
"None of the expected rancor came out," said David Mas Masumoto, a Fresno County grape and orchard farmer. "He listened and he said a lot of the right things."