President pushes for education Clinton pulls out campaign techniques on children's literacy

Reading by 3rd grade

GOP supports goal, but isn't ready to pay for White House plan

October 22, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Calling upon tried-and-true campaign-style techniques -- including having an angelic-looking second-grader read aloud to him -- President Clinton stepped up pressure on Congress yesterday to pay for his ambitious initiative to improve children's literacy.

The aim of the program is nothing less than ensuring that every child in America can read by the end of the third grade. But it has run into opposition among Republican lawmakers who support the goal but are skeptical that Clinton's plan is the best way to achieve it.

Appearing in the East Room of the White House, Clinton enlisted more than a dozen college presidents to spread the word that his plan will help rekindle a spirit of volunteerism while also meeting a national need.

"We know that children who don't read well by the end of the third grade are more likely to drop out of school and far less likely to realize their full potential," Clinton said. "We know that children who receive the help they need are much more likely to succeed in school and in life."

Yesterday's event is one of several in which the president is highlighting his education agenda, which ranges from linking every school to the Internet to establishing uniform national tests for math and reading.

Clinton's $2.75 billion initiative, called "America Reads," has three main components:

* Launching a project called Parents as First Teachers, modeled after a program for immigrantchildren in Israel. A teacher's aide, usually drawn from the neighborhood, visits homes, where she stresses to parents the importance of spending time -- 20 minutes a day, five days a week is recommended -- on reading.

* Increasing spending for Head Start, a federally subsidized preschool program for poor youngsters. Studies have shown a slight but consistent benefit to children who attend Head Start; Clinton would like to increase the number of the programs so they are available to every eligible youngster.

* Hiring 25,000 to 30,000 "reading specialists" and "tutor coordinators" to recruit and train 1 million tutors. The Education Department has identified college students in the federal work-study program as the likeliest candidates to be tutors. The administration has focused on using volunteers in AmeriCorps, Clinton's national volunteer program.

This last idea is the heart of his program, which was first announced on Clinton's trip to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago last summer, and the part that he stressed yesterday.

"Over a year ago, it began with a simple idea: that a well-trained, coordinated army of a million volunteers could be rallied to teach our children," Clinton said.

More than 800 schools of higher education have signed on as participants. Yesterday, more than a dozen college presidents appeared with Clinton, lauding his efforts and urging Congress to pony up the money to pay for them.

"The message to Congress," said Robert Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University, "is that we have a program that works."

In the House, however, the president's proposal is being held up by the chairman of the Education Committee, Rep. William F. Goodling, a Republican with a 22-year background as a teacher and school board member in Pennsylvania.

Goodling's concerns are twofold: First, that it is risky to entrust the job of reading instruction to "untrained or semi-trained" volunteers. Second, that the deeper, underlying problems of public education are rooted in faddish approaches to reading that pay too little attention to time-tested phonics-based methods.

Today, Goodling's committee is expected to debate and pass a Republican alternative to Clinton's program. The GOP bill includes money for teacher retraining, the stressing of phonics-based methodologies and more grants to the states to help provide in-school help for struggling first-, second- and third-graders on weekends, after school or during the summer.

"I want to work with the president on education, but we aren't here to rubber-stamp poor ideas," Goodling said yesterday. "Our xTC proposals emphasize 'the basics' and ensure that current, reliable and replicable research on reading techniques such as phonics reaches the classroom."

At the White House, though, it was clear that Clinton and the college presidents were committed to their volunteerism approach -- and that they have high hopes for it that go beyond the lofty goal of teaching youngsters to read.

The president harked back to the theme of this summer's President's Summit on Service in Philadelphia, in which Americans were urged to roll up their sleeves and volunteer to tackle the toughest of society's problems.

"The great thing about 'America Reads' is it serves two of the goals of the summit," Clinton said. "It gives children a good education and it gives young people the chance to serve."

In later interviews, several college presidents in attendance made it plain that they endorse the Clinton approach.

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