Clinton pledges Pounds 32bn to schools

President Clinton has made education the number one priority of his second term, and pledged Pounds 32 billion to make US schools the envy of the world.

In his State of the Union address to Congress, he called for boosting federal spending on education by one-fifth.

This included Pounds 3bn for construction and repairs, Pounds 387.5m for a programme to help school districts raise standards and improve teaching, Pounds 265.5m for educational technology, Pounds 62.5m to establish more experimental charter schools and enough money to pay at least 30,000 reading specialists to tutor children.

"Every eight-year-old must be able to read, every 12-year-old must be able to log on to the Internet, every 18-year-old must be able to go to college, and every adult American must be able to keep on learning for a lifetime," he said.

Mr Clinton outlined 10 ideas to overhaul the education system. These included online connections in every classroom; national student achievement tests in reading and maths to measure progress; a renewed teaching of citizenship; the enforcement of truancy laws, and the expulsion of disruptive students.

Members of the Republican party applauded the speech and did not raise any immediate objections to the proposals.

Parents and teachers said they were pleased that Mr Clinton had put schools at the top of the agenda, but were ambivalent about some of his intentions.

"It's not opposition as much as caution," said Paul Houston, director of the American Association of School Administrators. He was particularly concerned about demands for less tolerance and harsher discipline. "We already have schools kids don't want to go to," he said. "Making them more prison-like isn't going to make them want to go.

"All of these things that are catch-phrases for the politicians don't make the schools a happy place for children. You can't bludgeon people into greatness. "

Mr Houston welcomed Mr Clinton's pledge of Pounds 3.1bn for school improvements, including Pounds 12.5bn in construction bonds over the next four years.

He said that the federal General Accounting Office estimates that there is a need for a staggering Pounds 70bn in repairs.

Thomas Menino, mayor of Boston and chairman of the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Public Schools, praised the president but urged that cities with population of 30,000 or more get preference for school aid.

And Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association teachers' union, called the plan extraordinary, and promised teachers would make the vision a reality.

Mr Clinton said his crusade would require the country to exhibit the same level of bipartisan resolve it had showed during the Cold War. "Because our future was at stake, politics stopped at the water's edge," he said. "Now I ask you, and I ask all our nation's governors, I ask parents, teachers and citizens all across America, for a new non-partisan commitment to education, because education is a critical national security issue for our future, and politics must stop at the schoolhouse door."

The impact of Mr Clinton's speech was blunted somewhat when, just as he was completing his remarks, the jury in the OJ Simpson civil trial announced it had found Simpson liable for the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.

Live television coverage switched immediately to the California courthouse and newspaper were dominated by the Simpson verdict the next day.

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