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Conservatives beat their drum

As the Republican Congress returns to fight with President Bill Clinton, and the 1996 election campaign gets into full swing after a historically early start, US school systems promise to be the scene of budget battles and culture wars.

Some 50 million American children went back to school this month. Meanwhile conservatives' spending cuts were on collision course with Clinton's promise of a veto to save favoured education programmes. Republican presidential candidates have called for the abolition of the national Department of Education.

Last week, President Clinton told Congress not to make education a "partisan football". He told parents and students of the Abraham Lincoln middle schools: "In California, you have had enough of cuts in education."

On a broad front, US conservatives are pushing forward with their agenda to roll back social programmes and sharply prune the federal government's authority.

Pleas for a return to school uniforms, prayers, "character building" and old-fashioned discipline, and even the teaching of English as the country's only "official" language, echo Newt Gingrich's nostalgia for the "glorious 1950s".

The Republican House of Representatives has voted to trim $4 billion (Pounds 2.8bn) in federal education spending for the next fiscal year, and on White House estimates further cuts will remove $36bn from education and training over seven years. The US will still spend about $465bn a year on education.

Goals 2000, the Clinton administration's education reform programme for which it is seeking nearly $700m this year, has been "zeroed out" by Republicans, in a political slap in the face. The White House is also decrying cuts in "Head Start" for young children.

In theory the two sides must work out a compromise budget by October 1. To date, lobbying by universities has staved off many cuts in higher education; schools bear the brunt. That could change in the game of brinkmanship.

Republican front-runner Bob Dole recently called to an end for funding for bilingual teaching for youngsters, which conservatives estimate costs nearly $300m a year. Already, legislation on the table in Congress would end free public schooling for the children of non-citizens living in the US.

Playing to right-wing and Christian activists whose votes he needs for the nomination, Dole attacked "liberal academic elites" and said: "We're proud of our country. We won't put up with our tax dollars being used to drag it down or sow doubt about the nobility of America in the minds of our children."

Affirmative action for ethnic minorities is also under scrutiny. In Boston, the father of a 12-year-old white girl has sued an elite public school, Boston Latin, after she scored higher than 100 black and Hispanic students who were admitted. Boston Latin reserves 35 per cent of its admissions for black and Hispanic students.

Dole has endorsed the use of voucher systems in school funding and across the US, conservative reformers seem emboldened by the privatisation drumbeat. Pupils returned to Turner elementary school in Wilkinsburg this month, now run by Alternative Public Schools Inc, under contract to the local school board.

APS, given unprecedented powers to hire and fire, has removed 24 district teachers and found allies in conservative foundations and Pennsylvania's Republican Governor in its bitter fight with the union.

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