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Whether Bush or Gore, President Will Be a Player in School Reform

As president, either candidate would likely face cries of infringing on local autonomy--the same complaint that's stymied many of Clinton's education initiatives.

May 15, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

The political climate in Washington has grown so polarized that it's not clear whether the Senate this year will even agree on legislation reauthorizing the basic federal programs supporting public education.

When centrist Senate Democrats, led by Indiana's Evan Bayh and Connecticut's Joseph I. Lieberman, last week offered a sensible compromise between Democratic demands for more school funding and Republican calls for more local autonomy, they attracted all of 13 votes. That was a tip-off that most legislators in both parties would rather have a dispute they can take to the voters than a deal that could attract President Clinton's signature. That may be the sole bipartisan point of agreement about education in Congress these days.

This is hardly the ideal backdrop for exploring new ways that Washington can kick-start the school reform movement. Yet that's exactly what presidential contenders Al Gore and George W. Bush have been doing. In their own ways, each envisions Washington assuming a much more intimate role in shaping the direction of school reform. Democrat Gore would expand that role considerably more than Republican Bush, but both would use the White House to push very specific remedial plans on local school districts.

As president, either would likely face cries of infringing on local autonomy--the same complaint that's stymied many of Clinton's education initiatives. "Both Gore's and Bush's proposals are right on the line between being good policy and being overly prescriptive," says Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, an association of the largest school districts. Yet the trend toward greater guidance from the top may be inevitable as education rises as a national priority--and federal officials grow frustrated with the mixed results of local reform efforts.

This trend is most visible in Gore's education agenda. By dribbling out his plans over the past year, the vice president has somewhat obscured the full scale of his ambitions. But, building on Clinton's ideas, he is proposing to significantly enlarge Washington's role in virtually every aspect of school operation--offering both more money and more direction.

Gore would pour new federal money into everything from preschool (he's proposing $5 billion a year in federal grants to provide virtually universal access to early instruction) to high school (he wants to give states money to experiment with smaller high schools and new strategies to discourage dropouts). He also would provide more funds for building schools (like Clinton, he wants Washington to pay the interest on bonds localities float to construct new schools), as well as closing them (he's proposed giving states more money to intervene in failing schools, including shutting them down and reopening them with new management).

In Gore's vision, Washington would construct an assembly line to help fill classrooms with the new teachers needed to meet the demands of growing enrollment. He wants to spend $8 billion over the next decade to recruit 1 million teachers, mostly by expanding a Clinton program that provides college scholarships to young people who agree to teach in low-income districts. Then he wants to provide districts billions of dollars to hire new teachers under a program to reduce class sizes. Finally, he's proposed an $8-billion, 10-year grant program to boost teacher pay in districts that agree to toughen standards for teacher performance.

With all this money, though, comes strings--lots of them. As a condition of federal funding, Gore would require every school district to end social promotion--the practice of passing students to the next grade, regardless of whether they've mastered their current material. He would bar districts from using teachers who have not received state certification and require them to test new teachers in their subject area. For districts that participate in the grant program to raise pay, the demands grow more specific yet: They would be required to give principals the authority to hire teachers without regard to seniority and to create streamlined means for dismissing poorly performing teachers.

That's not the end of it. Gore would also mandate that states identify schools that are failing to improve student performance and undertake specific measures to turn them around. That would start with guaranteeing students in them the right to transfer to a better public school, and end with requirements to dismiss the principal. About the only thing missing are mandates to fire the kitchen staff when the lunches serve mystery meat--though if Gore keeps eating in cafeterias during his school-day visits, that might not be far off.

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