President Clinton has apparently decided to make education a key focus of his second administration; in both his State of the Union speech and his budget proposals, he highlighted education initiatives. Much of the focus seemed appropriate — scholarships for higher education, literacy, technology, school construction. But, taken as a package, Clinton’s proposals are disappointing.
Granted, Clinton’s budget must pass muster in a Republican-controlled Congress. If he had proposed a truly adequate plan, Congress might not have even given it the time of day. At the same time, the Presidency is about more than budgets. As Ronald Reagan so skillfully realized, one of the presidency’s political benefits is that the President has an automatic “bully pulpit” to help define not just federal but state and local policies. Unfortunately, Clinton’s “bully pulpit” has the microphone turned off when it comes to educational issues.
In his State of the Union address, for example, Clinton didn’t even mention the dismal and unequal state of public school funding in this country. It’s not that he doesn’t know what’s going on; last fall he and his advisors watched what is the most powerful documentary ever on school funding inequities, Children In America’s Schools, with Bill Moyers. While I don’t expect Clinton to launch a federal Marshall Plan for schools — as some in the Moyers documentary advocated — he could have outlined the problem and exhorted states and localities to take on this pressing issue.
One of the encouraging signs in Clinton’s education proposals is that he didn’t let the Republicans completely set the agenda. An intriguing question is the extent to which Clinton’s educational initiatives might signal a political shift in the national debate around education. The Republicans’ federal education agenda has centered on getting rid of the Department of Education, providing vouchers to private schools, and legalizing school prayer. Clinton’s emphasis on increased federal dollars for public schools may provide an opening for progressives to regain the offensive on education issues and push for programs that will truly serve all children.
The main components of Clinton’s education program are:
- Higher standards and more tests. Clinton called high national standards his number one priority and earmarked an additional $159 million in fiscal 1998 for that effort.
- Grants and tax breaks for higher education. The Pell Grant college scholarship program is to receive an additional $1.7 billion dollars in fiscal 1998. Two additional college programs will cost an estimated $36 billion over the next five years. The Hope Scholarship will offer $1,500 tax credits to cover two years of postsecondary education. The Middle-Class Bill of Rights tax deduction would allow tax deductions of up to $10,000 to defray the costs of college tuition. Clinton would also allow penalty-free withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts if the money is used to pay post-secondary education expenses.
- Literacy. Clinton proposes $200 million a year for the next five years to coordinate a national tutoring program for kindergarten through third grade students.
- Technology. Clinton is proposing a total of $500 million in 1998 to help connect every classroom and library to the internet.
- Better Teachers. Clinton proposes giving $21 million to the private National Board for Professional Teaching Standards which “certifies” master teachers.
- Charter schools. Clinton will double federal support for charter schools, proposing to spend $100 million in 1998.
- School construction. Clinton proposes to spend $5 billion in the next four years to help local communities finance bonds to build more schools or renovate old ones.
- Other initiatives call for character education and increased attention to early childhood programs.
Certainly, we need high standards and expectations for all students. But to say, as Clinton did, that the federal government will help by leading an effort “to develop national tests of student achievement in reading and math” is like having a doctor suggest to a seriously ill patient that he should take his temperature for a third or fourth time. The children in most public schools are already subjected to dozens of tests. Those who do poorly do not need more tests. They need the financial and political support necessary to reform their schools.
Clinton also says we need “the best teachers” for our children and must “quickly and fairly remove those few who don’t measure up.” Who would disagree? But what programs will most successfully improve the quality of teachers? Unfortunately Clinton’s focus on national certification of “master teachers” is wrong. Quality teachers have better things to do (like teach) than pursue an additional certification, and lousy teachers will ignore such a program. Federal dollars would be better spent on peer evaluation and assistance programs such as those in Cincinnati and Columbus, where administrators and forward-looking teacher unions are working cooperatively to assist teachers in need and to get rid of the “bad” ones.
Furthermore, one of the key ways to improve the teaching corps is through the training and hiring of teachers of color. Nearly one-third of the children in our schools are students of color, and that percentage is expected to increase. Yet only 12 -13% of the nation’s teachers are from minority-ethnic groups. Clinton proposes spending $3.7 million in 1998 on the federal Minority Teacher Recruitment program. This will serve 3,250 prospective teachers, or only one-tenth of a percent of the total teaching force.
Clinton’s budget includes a $324 million increase in Head Start funding this year, which will serve an additional 36,000 children. Over the next five years, a total of 1 million children will participate — up from its current enrollment of about 830,000. While worthwhile, the increases are a significant step backward from earlier Clinton promises to fully fund the program so that all eligible children could participate. His unkept promise leaves out 1 million children.
Clinton’s plan to double the monies for charter schools from $50 to $100 million is one of his most politically popular proposals. If, however, the goal is to encourage innovation in existing public schools — either through example or pressure — the legislation should be modified so that it also funds innovation in existing systems of public education. Under Clinton’s proposal, an innovative public school that chooses not to become a charter school would be ineligible. Thus models of inspiration, such as Central Park East in New York City, could not receive funding through this initiative.
Clinton has requested $5 billion in federal funds over the next 5 years to pay half the interest on local building bonds. It is the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt used job-creation monies to build schools that a President has talked about helping with the school facilities’ crisis. Clinton hopes this will spur $20 billion in local spending. However, the Government Accounting Office itself has said it would require a minimum of $112 billion just to bring our nation’s school facilities up to an adequate level. I don’t expect Clinton, let alone Congress, to fund all such school construction through the Federal Treasury. But an acknowledgment of the enormity of the problem would have been political manna for those working at a local level to pass school construction referenda.
Clinton also falls short when one contrasts his budget figures to his high-sounding rhetoric about connecting all school and libraries to the Internet. His $500 million proposal is only a fraction of the $10-$31 billion estimates of what it would cost to connect this country’s 81,000 schools to the Internet.
The main beneficiaries of the bulk of Clinton’s tax breaks for education will be the middle class. More affluent families, for example, are most able to take advantage of the $10,000 tax deduction or expanded use of IRA accounts.
While there are some increased monies being put into Pell Grants — which have historically helped low-income students pay for college — the emphasis on post-secondary aid is through tax initiatives. Furthermore, most of the increased Pell Grants money is to raise the maximum award from $2,700 to $3,000 — but tuition has risen so fast that Pell Grants are already worth 30% less than they were in 1980.
The Department of Education itself acknowledges that this slants help toward the middle class. As it wrote in its summary of Clinton’s budget: “Needy students in particular would benefit more from the up-front assistance and simplicity provided through the Pell Grant program. However, the administration believes that federal assistance for middle-income families struggling to finance their children’s education is better accomplished through the income tax system.”
The Hope Scholarships, $1,500 tax credits for up to two years of post-secondary education, may help some low-income families. One potential educational problem, however, is that the second year of tax-credits would only be available to those students with a B average or higher. A student could get all Bs and one B minus and lose the tax credit. Some fear his requirement, besides being unenforceable unless the IRS starts policing report cards, will lead to grade inflation.
When Clinton’s educational program is analyzed in the context of his approach to other social issues — such as his abandonment of a federal responsibility for a welfare safety net and his cut backs in food stamps, WIC programs, and in general aid to immigrant and jobless people — he seems to be leaving a whole group of kids on the other side of his bridge to the 21st century.