Goals 2000 plan slips from consensus to controversy

July 23, 1995|By Sarah Lindenfeld | Sarah Lindenfeld,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Goals 2000 was born as a celebrated campaign to make American students the smartest in the world by 2000. States would get federal money to buy state-of-the-art resources, hire gifted teachers and ensure that schools are safe, drug-free places where knowledge would flourish.

But since it took effect last year, conservatives have declared war on what was once a clearly bipartisan initiative. Goals 2000, they contend, encourages a politically correct curriculum, permissive sex-education classes, and a feel-good, student-centered environment that turns out poorly trained, undisciplined young adults.

Now they aim to translate that resistance into the force of law. This month, the ax of the House Republicans fell on Goals 2000 as an appropriations subcommittee voted to deny it money in next year's budget.

The subcommittee vote was merely the latest attack. Last month, two states refused to participate in Goals 2000 -- rejecting federal money. Their stated reason: The program gave the federal government too much authority over education, which has been a state and local responsibility.

"It centralizes power and eliminates choice," said Bob Morrison, education policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group that opposes Goals 2000. "It will lead to a lowering of national standards. It's a process the federal government has its finger on all the way down the line."

Long before it ran into a storm of opposition, Goals 2000 was a bipartisan project, with then-President George Bush, a Republican who billed himself as "the education president," solidly behind it. Mr. Bush helped develop the plan at the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., where he and the nation's governors met to establish goals to try to lift public schools out of "mediocrity, social decay and national decline," Mr. Bush said .

The governor of Arkansas at the time, Bill Clinton, also played an instrumental role. And in March 1994, as president, Mr. Clinton signed Goals 2000 legislation.

Maryland, which has been a leader in the campaign to improve public school performance, is among 48 states that have received part of the $105 million that Congress allocated to Goals 2000. But last month, Virginia and New Hampshire rejected the money because, their governors said, the program would allow the federal government to dictate public education.

"We don't need to have [education policy] dictated to us from Washington," said Ken Stroupe, a spokesman for Republican Gov. George F. Allen of Virginia.

The New Hampshire Board of Education voted not to accept the funds, said Jim Rivers, spokesman for Gov. Stephen Merrill, also a Republican. "New Hampshire should have sole sovereignty in education, and Goals 2000 money came with too many strings attached," Mr. Rivers said.

One of those "strings" was the application to receive the funds, said Pat Genestreti, who resigned from the state's Board of Education this month and voted against Goals 2000.

"I've never known a government program without any strings attached," he said. "The first thing is you have to apply. Well, that's a condition. There's no guarantee we could get the money. If there are truly no conditions, all the government had to do was mail us a check to the state of New Hampshire."

Critics also claim Goals 2000 supports health care clinics with sex education and free condoms, a liberal history curriculum and NTC an atmosphere that de-emphasizes grades and rigorous classes.

But supporters of Goals 2000 point out that it is a purely voluntary program under which states can devise their own curriculums. It is not, they say, an effort by the federal government to regulate education or to set a national curriculum. On the contrary, supporters note that the program calls for state and local governments, not the federal government, to take the lead in determining the programs that schools adopt.

"This is really everything folks want out of education," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach in Maryland. "Students are working at higher levels and participating."

Mike Cohen, a senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, contends that most of the opponents can't back up what they contend about Goals 2000.

"There's a small, but very vocal and well-organized group that is opposed to it," Mr. Cohen said. "They stirred up a bit of noise, and they aren't attacking what the law does. They are just making things up.

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