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Praise for President's Classroom Plans - Now the Hard Part

Bob Peterson's fifth-grade classroom has windows that leak. Six donated computers are plugged into a single outlet. And the temperature registered a frosty 58 degrees Wednesday morning - the furnace downstairs had quit again.

To this Milwaukee teacher, President Clinton's plan to improve American education - including money for school repairs - is reason for hope, but it also raises concerns.

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"Having the president raise education as his No. 1 issue is positive for teachers, parents, and kids," Mr. Peterson says. But the inner-city school teacher wonders whether the proposals will "actually help those who need it the most."

Certainly, school repair is one of the least contentious ideas contained in Mr. Clinton's 10-point, $51 billion education budget released yesterday.

If all are enacted, the proposals would be the most comprehensive revamp of American education since the Kennedy administration, which poured money and workers into raising math and science scores after the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

Like his cold-war predecessor, Clinton says the nation's survival depends on public schools, and has asked for bipartisan support for better school buildings, increased discipline, teacher training, and other needs.

Some of the proposals are controversial, such as national academic standards. But even his critics agree the president is effectively using his bully pulpit to boost education's rank on the national agenda - and doing it at a time when the public and legislators are receptive to change.

"We have a system that has been accustomed to moving people along at very low standards for a long period of time, and [Clinton] has limited ability to push up the quality," says Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration. "But he's using the limited tools he has rather well."

"The top leaders of the country are responding to what they are hearing from people who feel that education is important to their economic survival," says John Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. Eventually, he predicts, all 10 points in Clinton's plan will pass, albeit in altered form. "They may be pared back a little bit, but they will be enacted by the Congress. And they will have some effect."

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The standards debate

If approved, Clinton's plan to establish national academic standards may have the most lasting impact in the classroom, experts say. To graduate from high school, students in every state would have to meet the same standards for math, science, reading, and social studies. Clinton was careful to use the word "national" rather than "federal" in describing these standards - an effort to assuage conservative concerns about federal intrusion into local school districts.

Clinton's nod to conservatives may be paying off. While education reformer Jeanne Allen says most of the president's ideas are "pie in the sky" and would be better handled at the local level, she gives grudging praise for his support of higher standards and national achievement tests.

"If in fact he uses the National Assessment for Educational Progress [test], which is the only strong barometer we have of student achievement ... and leaves it up to the states as to how they want to use it, I think that's a good thing," says Ms. Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington.

Many congressional Republicans say they are finding common ground with the president on education, even if they are cautious about the price tag.

"There is consensus. We've known about this for quite some time," says Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, who serves on the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. Still, he adds, Republicans have no plans of placing a $51 billion "Band-Aid" on "the 760 [education] bureaucracies or programs spread across 39 departments, agencies, and commissions that in 1995 cost 120 billion taxpayer dollars."

Other Republicans share his cautious enthusiasm. "I can tell you I like the idea of expanding public-school choice through the use of charter schools - especially if he will join us in taking on the teachers unions," says California Rep. Frank Riggs (R), who also serves on the educational opportunities committee. "I also like his call for national standards."

Both say their main point of contention will be cost. "The problem in Washington isn't that we aren't spending enough dollars, but that we are spending it on the wrong things," says Representative Hoekstra. "That is why we are saying, before we embark on major new programs and major new initiatives, let's take a look at what we are doing today."

Slow boat to reform

Even if Clinton's program sails through Congress, it would also, like a mighty ocean freighter, take time to change the course of American education.

"The impact will not be immediately apparent in a year or so," says Bruno Manno, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "But that's not to say it's 20 years away. Within a relatively short period of time, we could begin to see differences in individual schools."

* Monitor staff writers Scott Baldauf and Skip Thurman in Boston, Laurel Shaper Walters in St. Louis, and Elizabeth Levitan Spaid in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Clinton's Education Initiatives

1. National, but not federal, education standards

2. Merit system for teachers

3. Intensive campaign to teach reading

4. Expansion of Head Start

5. More choices for parents in selecting public schools

6. Character education

7. $5 billion in federal aid to repair schools

8. Scholarships for two-year college degrees

9. More training for American workers

10. Hooking up every classroom to the Internet

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