President with a cause Education: Clinton 'crusade' is popular, but raises serious questions.

February 06, 1997

HAVING FAILED in his first-term quest for comprehensive health care reform, President Clinton starts his second term determined to launch a "national crusade" to make American education "the best in the world."

As his State of the Union address emphasized so emphatically, this will be his "No. 1 priority for the next four years." A 20 percent rise in federal support of education for fiscal 1998 would cover everything from Head Start to college -- this, despite the balanced-budget austerity mood in Washington.

If pushed to logical but elusive conclusions, Mr. Clinton would expand the traditional 12-year local public school program to include two to four years of higher education financed by federal tax breaks and grants. It would establish a system of "national standards" by which states could measure the math and reading progress of students. And it would promote reading proficiency by enlisting 1 million volunteers, create 3,000 semi-autonomous "charter schools," provide billions for school construction and plug all classrooms into the Internet.

Such is the vision of a president intent on making a legacy out of an issue that paid off handsomely for him on the campaign trail. JTC But enticing as Mr. Clinton's crusade may be at first glance, it is loaded with philosophical and practical problems that will require searching examination on Capitol Hill. Examples:

Will still another federal entitlement -- this one offering tax breaks and tax credits to students whose families have incomes as high as $100,000 -- entice colleges to keep raising tuition faster than the rate of inflation?

Will teachers be under grade-inflation pressure to give students the Bs necessary to become and remain eligible for middle-class tax breaks or for Pell grants to low-income students? Also, will students be tempted to take easy courses to keep up their grade averages?

To what extent would "national standards" undercut local control of public school curricula -- this, despite assurances that the program would be for each state to choose?

These questions indicate that the Clinton education crusade could have some of the potential "unintended consequences" that bedeviled his health care reform once the details were fully examined. The president has said one of his biggest mistakes after moving into the White House was to overestimate the amount of public support for changes in the nation's medical system. This time, on education, he obviously feels he has this support. The muted Republican reaction indicates he may be right.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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