WASHINGTON — The most significant debate in years over the federal role in education took shape Wednesday as President Clinton detailed his legislative plans to hold students, teachers and schools accountable for better results and Republicans in Congress pledged a fight to protect local control over school affairs.
The proposals to rewrite the federal law on elementary and secondary education for the first time since 1994 come amid intense partisan jockeying on an issue that voters rank among their top concerns. Across America, candidates for the presidency, Congress, governor and other public offices--many with little real responsibility for running schools--now routinely tout education planks in their platforms.
But far more than politics is riding on the outcome of the debate Clinton has kindled. The programs involved, notably the $8-billion-per-year funding for Title I, have been since the 1960s the cornerstone of the nation's efforts to help millions of students overcome the obstacles of poverty and become adept in reading and mathematics.
Although some say that Title I has improved the educational system, others see stagnation. But all sides acknowledge that schools have far to go. The latest federal test data show that 38% of fourth-graders could not score at a level of "basic" competency in reading in 1998--the same as in 1992. A disproportionate number of those illiterate or barely literate children come from impoverished neighborhoods.
As he pitched his proposals Wednesday, Clinton said: "We do not have the luxury of waiting and continuing to subsidize failure."
Clinton was seeking to flesh out ideas he first proposed in January in his State of the Union address. In return for federal education aid, the president would require states to end "social promotion," the practice of passing students from one grade to another despite their failure to master skills; send parents "report cards" on how their schools are doing; hire better-trained teachers and shake up failing schools.
States that fail to comply, said Clinton aide Bruce Reed, would face federal sanctions ranging from "a mild rebuke to a cutoff of money." Clinton plans to send his bill to Congress by the end of the week.
The initial reaction from key Republicans on Capitol Hill, in essence, was "fine goals, wrong approach."
Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, charged that Clinton's proposals "trample on our nation's long and proven traditions of local control of education. They would impose Washington solutions to local problems."
Goodling, who has been conducting hearings on the issue for several months but has not yet introduced his own bill, said that Republicans prefer to give states more latitude to spend federal money as they see fit, similar to the approach taken in a modest bill for "education flexibility" that Clinton has signed into law.
Although Clinton's elementary and secondary education bill proposes a significant restructuring of federal programs, funding them is another matter. Clinton's budget for fiscal 2000 proposes limited increases for education compared to previous years. In addition, congressional Republicans may restrict funding for new education initiatives in the name of balancing the budget. GOP leaders have signaled skepticism about Clinton's request for continued funding to hire 100,000 teachers under a federal class-size reduction initiative begun last year, among other proposals.
But Clinton's education bill--and others introduced or being written by Democrats and Republicans--aims for an impact that outlasts the year-to-year budget battles.
Clinton's proposals contain lofty goals and claims about the impact of his reforms. But analysts found in some cases that Clinton's substance failed to match his rhetoric.
Amy Wilkins, an analyst for an independent Washington-based group called the Education Trust, said that the fine print in his plan reveals weaknesses in one provision that claimed to "end the practice of hiring emergency-certified teachers." Rather than require all new teachers to be fully licensed from the start, Wilkins said, the administration would allow new hires up to three years to earn their credentials while they are on the job.
"If we're going to move standards into the classroom, then the most important thing we need to do is upgrade the quality of the teaching force," Wilkins said. "This bill will take a very long time to do that, if ever."
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a member of the House education panel who earlier this month introduced his own education-reform bill, agreed that Clinton's proposal is too soft on the issue of teacher quality. Miller said that schools should notify parents when their children are in classrooms with teachers who are not credentialed. "Parents would be shocked," Miller said, to learn that tens of thousands of teachers in California work with emergency permits.