A plan to aid schools draws fire

April 28, 1996|By Tanya Jones

WASHINGTON -- Goals 2000, a program that consumes about 1 percent of the Education Department budget, embodies a seemingly benign purpose: Get states to increase students' knowledge. But many conservatives find Goals 2000 anything but benign.

Angered by what they call federal intrusion, groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council contend that Goals 2000 would produce, among other things, liberally biased curriculums and clinics that would issue contraceptives and refer students for abortions. Patrick J. Buchanan hammered Goals 2000 on the campaign trail. And some Republicans in Congress want to kill it.

If they succeed, according to the program's supporters, it would mean the end of a program that has funneled millions of dollars to schools to help all students, including disadvantaged ones, raise their performance in the classroom; encourage parent involvement; and strengthen teacher training.

"It has given impetus to schools to address areas that they feel need attention with money that they obviously would not have had," said Phyllis Bailey, who oversees the program as director of strategic planning for the Maryland Department of Education, which received $5.4 million for Goals 2000 in 1995.

Though some programs in Maryland might continue on a smaller scale if Congress eliminated Goals 2000 funding, she said, "the bottom line is it would be a very severe blow."

But opponents, fearing the loss of local control, are determined to see the program dismantled.

"This well-meaning idea puts in place a structure that is easy to use for coercive [government] ideology," said John Calligan, executive director of the Maryland Christian Coalition.

In a far more harmonious -- and bipartisan -- atmosphere, Goals 2000 was born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989. Concerned that American students were lagging behind those in Europe and Asia, where standards tend to be rigorously enforced, 48 governors met with President George Bush to develop goals to be achieved nationally by the end of the century. Those goals are the basis of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act signed into law in 1994.

But recently, a more conservative group of governors and business leaders met for a two-day education summit that Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin described as the "diametric opposite of Goals 2000."

They were still pushing for higher achievement, but this time, the governors, who met in Palisades, N.Y., rejected the idea of national goals and promised to work with school officials in their own states to set high academic standards.

Meanwhile, Goals 2000 remains in place, its future uncertain. In clashes over short-term spending bills that have kept the government running this fiscal year, congressional Democrats and some Republican supporters have managed to include funding for the program, though at lower levels than last year.

But the struggle over a federal budget for the next fiscal year looms. A new generation of conservative Republicans who came into office after President Clinton signed the law in 1994 has vowed to eliminate Goals 2000 -- in fact, the entire Education Department -- calling them a threat to local control over education.

Goals 2000 proposes eight national goals, among them that U.S. students will be first in the world in math and science, that 90 percent of students will graduate from high school and that all children will start school ready to learn.

To that end, it asks states to map out reforms, and gives them money for teacher training, development of standards, and programs created by individual school districts. These include homework hotlines, summer learning camps, computers and technology in classrooms, expanded parental involvement.

Money can also go for health care, child care and parent training -- ideas that have aroused especially bitter resistance.

Supporters point out that a state's participation is purely voluntary. And even if a state does take part, they note, it can adopt its own methods and can reject federal recommendations.

"This is the most flexible, easiest money to get," said Mike Cohen, an adviser to Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. "The federal government's job is to support [reform], not interfere."

Moreover, business leaders and educators had hailed Goals 2000 as a pivotal step in readying students for a competitive global market. Unlike most Western countries, the United States has no nationally enforced standards of what students should know.

The percentage of U.S. high school seniors who take and pass advanced tests in specific subjects lags behind those in England, France, Germany and Japan, according to a study released by the American Federation of Teachers.

But Goals 2000 critics object to the national standards proposed in math, science, geography, civics and other subjects. The history standards caused a particular uproar among conservatives who said they advanced a liberal and negative view of America.

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