God deflects attention from Clinton goals

Lucy Hodges

At the start of 1994 Bill Clinton was riding relatively high. He received good marks - from Republicans and Democrats - for telling teenagers at a junior high school in the ghetto not to have babies before they were ready for marriage, and won bipartisan support for a whole raft of education legislation.

His success in pushing through reforms in education has received scant attention in America, but they show what Clinton was able to do with a low-profile issue and a Congress that was on his side. George Bush had similar aims, but got nowhere several years earlier.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act lays down voluntary standards in a core of subjects. States that want to sign on receive money. When the law was passed there was much trumpeting about how it was an historic event - which it was, in a nation that sees education as an intensely local matter.

Most commentators thought states would want to jump on the bandwagon of reform. But today, in a political climate which has moved swiftly to the Right and with rows about the content of history standards dividing liberals and conservatives, there is much less certainty about whether the effort will succeed.

Liberal-baiter Lynn Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who works today at the American Enterprise Institute, is setting up her own council to monitor the standards being developed by the subject associations.

Following the Republican landslide in the recent Congressional and gubernatorial elections, the radical Right is on the offensive. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is recommending that the council established to oversee the Goals 2000 reform be scrapped. But it goes further, calling for the abolition of the Department of Education and the repeal of most of Goals 2000. All such responsibilities should be handed over to the states, it says.

Clinton's introduction of vocational training in high schools, another new law with far-reaching effect, which would set voluntary standards for school-to-work skills, is also being set upon by the Republican victors. The initiative should be abolished, the Heritage Foundation says, and the money given to the states.

Whether anything will happen with these radical Right ideas is doubtful. What is clear, however, is that the mid-term elections gave a big boost to the anti-sex education, pro-school prayer lobby and to those who want to promote school vouchers, private contracting and charter schools the equivalent of opted-out schools in the UK.

The private management of publicly-funded schools grew apace in 1994. Minneapolis and Hartford in Connecticut, joined Baltimore in seeking to turn over schools to private managers. They felt they had nothing to lose. Years of effort had not improved test scores or drop-out rates. Something more drastic was needed. The results of handing over the running of schools to companies that operate for profit is controversial, and the results to date are not clear.

Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the National Centre for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University's teachers college, says: "We are trying to do a once-in-a-century reform of education. This is a transforming era. These efforts reflect the frustration people have with a perceived public-school bureaucracy that is entrenched in a way of doing things that cannot meet the needs in the future."

How much school prayer will dominate the education agenda in 1995 will depend on Newt Gingrich, the man elected by Republicans as next Speaker of the House of Representatives. After the Republican landslide Gingrich blurted out his desire for a constitutional amendment to allow "voluntary" prayer in schools.

Clinton hopped on the bandwagon, but all hell broke loose. It became very clear very quickly that this was an extraordinarily controversial and complicated "hot-button" issue. The churches do not want to see prayer returned to the classroom, nor do civil liberties groups and many Americans of both parties. Those in favour are the religious Right and others - of both parties - concerned with values in American life. Gingrich backed off the issue. But the signs are he will return to it.

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