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Building Education

President Clinton's new proposal to spend $350 million to train teachers for poor urban and rural public classrooms is one useful piece in a complicated puzzle. The puzzle: how to create a higher degree of educational equity within America's diverse maze of schools and school districts.

Many states are trying to solve this puzzle under the pressure of court rulings striking down the traditional reliance on local property taxes to fund public education. Under that system, wealthier communities, or those with thriving local industry, inevitably come out far ahead in their academic offerings.

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Educational inequity all too frequently takes on a racial hue. Minority students concentrated in inner-city districts typically fare poorly academically. Cities' struggles to come up with adequate resources to turn failing schools around are often Sisyphean. Progress doesn't come easily, and it's hard to sustain as waves of new students, often immigrant children with spotty educational backgrounds, come aboard.

The federal government has a limited, but catalytic role to play in all this. The Clinton administration's teacher training program is a good example. Getting high-quality teachers to stay in struggling districts, especially urban ones, is a deepening problem. The administration estimates that the nation's poorest schools will need 350,000 new teachers in the next five years. Its plan will help train 35,000 - only a start, but it could create momentum.

Federal grants would go to graduate schools of education that have partnerships with needy school districts. Grant money would underwrite the tuitions of students who have agreed to teach in such districts for at least three years.

Will this right-minded proposal make it through Congress? Earlier this year, an administration plan to devote $5 billion to subsidizing the interest on bonds for rebuilding deteriorating school buildings in poor areas got nowhere in the budget process. Critics said it interfered with local prerogatives. That doesn't wash. If there was ever a good case for thoughtful federal involvement in education, it's in the equity arena. The erection of credible, voluntary national standards for academic achievement would be one sound contribution. Aid in training teachers for poorer districts, and in repairing crumbling buildings, are others. Both the latter projects could justly absorb billions more than have been proposed. Considering the importance of giving all children sound educations, and the relatively small amounts requested, Congress should not be stingy.

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