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Politics and Education

Perhaps the most ringing moment in President Clinton's State of the Union Message Tuesday came with his call for a bipartisan commitment to improve education. Making an analogy to a unified foreign policy during the cold war, he exhorted his listeners, "Politics must stop at the classroom door."

Those words were aimed specifically at the members of Congress present. But they also were intended to occupy a niche in the wider national consciousness. A popular consensus on education could impel legislative consent to the president's extensive education plans.

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Rhetorically, it worked. Will it work practically?

Education is, in fact, a highly political subject. And its politics are much more complex than any philosophical or partisan divide within Congress. Educational questions rouse debate in the principal's office, the school board room, the state house. As Mr. Clinton well knows, a president, or a Congress, can only do so much to quell the contention and foster unified action.

But we applaud the president's renewed effort to exert some national leadership. The country's long engagement with school reform has yet to yield the kind of results most Americans hope for. Overall, student performance still lags in such crucial areas as math and reading.

Clinton's 10-point program for lifting American education spans the grades, from the perennial (and commendable) call to expand Head Start for preschoolers to financial help for college students and their families. But the program's heart is "principle" No. 1: a "national crusade" for education standards and a means of making sure they're attained.

This reform emphasizes a need for federal, state, and local partnership. The president must maintain the drumbeat for national standards; states have to help devise and disseminate them; local districts have to apply them and have a say in shaping them to local conditions.

Much of the best work on standards is being carried out by private organizations using foundation funding. Private-public partnership is also a key.

Education reform in America can work only if it blends the long tradition of local control with the fire of a national movement. The president is trying to restoke that fire, but the critical spark has to come from thousands of classrooms. Politics as divisiveness and bickering should be barred at the door. Politics as reconciliation of differences, reassignment of resources and money, and collective motivation has to forge ahead, at all levels of decisionmaking.

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