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Debate Over National School Tests Offers Real-Life Lesson in Politics

Clinton's proposal to create exams seems modest, but it is enmeshed in epic dispute over who decides what society teaches its children.

September 16, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The intensity of the battle over national education tests seems way out of proportion with what's at stake: only $15 million in initial funding to develop the exams, and no federal mandate requiring anyone ever to take them.

But education officials and political analysts agree that by trying to institute the first national academic tests in reading and math, President Clinton is wading into a debate of epic scale.

It is a dispute that is likely to engulf the House this week, when opponents of national exams try to prohibit the Clinton administration from proceeding with the testing initiative. They are expected to win handily, setting the stage for a later showdown with the White House and Senate.

At its heart is a struggle as old as the republic itself, one that has waxed and waned in intensity but has never been fully resolved.

"This is the latest installment in the age-old dispute about who controls the schools--the federal government or the states," said Neal Katyal, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University. "It goes back to the Civil War, when the states did not want to educate blacks and the federal government forced them to put a guarantee of education for all citizens in their constitutions."

One of Clinton's top legislative priorities is to create a national test of reading ability for fourth-graders and mathematics ability for eighth-graders. All states and school systems would be encouraged to participate in the testing program, but none would be required to do so.

The proposal has become a legislative lightning rod in Congress, particularly in the House. Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Education and Work Force Committee, is sponsoring a proposal to prohibit the administration from spending any money to draft or administer the tests. The Goodling provision will be offered as an amendment to a sweeping education- and labor-spending bill as early as today, and House leaders are confident it will pass.

The Senate last week voted in favor of the tests, but its measure would alter the way they are developed and administered. After the House vote, the Senate and House will try to strike a compromise. The outcome is uncertain.

Clinton's advisors and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley say they will urge the president to veto the final education and labor appropriation if it includes the House provision to deny funding for national tests.

The latest skirmish in this long-running battle has created strange alliances. The Congressional Black Caucus, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and many liberal Democrats have joined forces with Republicans and groups like the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum and Traditional Values Coalition to oppose the exams.

The motivations for opposing the tests, however, are very different. Conservatives argue that the federal government is about to usurp a power that the country's framers meant to belong to the states. Liberals worry that the tests could stigmatize students who, through no fault of their own, are receiving inadequate educations at their public schools.

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"Our founding fathers knew very clearly what they were doing when they determined that education should be a local issue," said Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.).

Conservatives fear that national tests represent a first step along a slippery slope of federal involvement in neighborhood schools.

"Parents want to continue to have control over education, and they feel this is another attempt by the Clinton administration to push on parents what they believe," said Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group. "It's based on the assumption that the parents don't know best; government knows best."

Conservatives fear that once the national tests are in place, local schools will feel pressure to adapt their teaching plans to ensure that their pupils perform well on the exams. "We're concerned with the effect it will have in creating a national curriculum," Sheldon said.

Even supporters of the tests say the opposition is understandable in light of the traditional feeling that education is a local and state prerogative.

"Historically, there has never been a national test that potentially all students could take," said Wayne Martin of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the heads of state school systems across the country. "It's something brand new, and some people are viewing it as suspicious."

The debate over control of the schools is a battle the administration has fought before. The same charges were lodged against Clinton's Goals 2000 initiative, which is providing money to every state to develop improved academic standards and help students attain them. Last year, when congressional Republicans tried to abolish the Department of Education, they argued that getting rid of the agency would restore power over the schools to local communities and states.

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