Washington is trying to exert more influence over local decision-making in schools. Tim Cornwell reports.
The United States faces a major political clash over the role of the federal government in running the nation's schools.
While Democrat leaders are pushing for Washington to exercise more control and to introduce performance tests for teachers, conservatives argue that the biggest decisions must be made locally.
President Bill Clinton detailed plans last week under which federal grants worth $15 billion (pound;10 billion) annually would be used to force policy changes at the local level. His goals include increased "accountability" for teachers and an end to "social promotion", the practice of shunting poor-performing students through school.
Vice-president Al Gore, almost certain to be the Democratic party's candidate to succeed Bill Clinton, has gone a step further. In a recent speech, he made education an early centrepiece of his campaign for the White House, with a seven-point plan for "revolutionary change" in US schools.
Republicans - who in past years have tried to abolish the US education department altogether - have reacted nastily. Party leaders accused the president of trying to "trample on our nation's long and proven tradition of local control of education".
Traditionally, the vast bulk of funding for education has come from states and local districts, with the federal government confined to special grant programmes for the poor, minorities, or children with learning disabilities.
The pressure for a national policy is building as Americans worried about falling standards in state schools tell pollsters it is their number one political issue.
In what seemed the most radical part of his platform, the vice-president proposed that teachers should have to pass performance evaluations every five years in order to keep their licences.
He called for universal access to pre-school for three and four-year olds, a national plan to reduce class sizes and $10,000 college grants to students who promised to teach in troubled schools.
Al Gore, who prides himself on his technological know-how, repeated earlier calls for "e-tutors" on-line and for connecting every school to the Internet.
He said new teachers should not start their jobs until they had passed a "rigorous test" that measured their skills in their chosen subject.
"We should treat teachers like professionals, we should pay them like professionals and we should hold them to high professional standards," he said. "No teaching licence should be a life-time guarantee."
He proposed "second-chance schools" for pupils with discipline problems and those expelled for being caught with guns.