President Clinton has called for 100,000 new teachers to be hired to reduce the average number of students in the youngest grades from 31 to 18 per class.
In a State of the Union speech overshadowed by the sex scandal involving Mr Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the president proposed unprecedented federal education spending, including $22 billion (#163;13.5 bn) in government-backed bonds to help provide the needed additional classroom space.
"We have opened wide the doors of the world's best system of higher education," Mr Clinton said in a reference to expanded federal financial aid approved last year for university and college students. "Now we must make our public elementary and secondary schools the best in the world, too, by raising standards, raising expectations, and raising accountability."
It was the second year running that the president has made education one of the principal themes of his annual address to Congress, which sets out the administration's legislative goals. Last year he said education was the key priority and pushed for experimental charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately run), ambitious literacy programmes and Internet links in every classroom.
This year, Mr Clinton has proposed hiring 100,000 teachers to reduce class sizes in grades one to three (six to nine-year-olds) at an estimated cost of $7 bn (#163;4.3 bn); and tax credits to pay interest on construction bonds that would be used to build and renovate 5,000 public schools.
"If I've got the maths right, more teachers teaching smaller classes requires more classrooms," Mr Clinton said.
A huge increase in the number of school-age children has already made space tight, and the government estimates existing educational facilities need at least $12 bn (#163;7.4 bn) in repairs.
Mr Clinton also urged a $22 bn (#163;13.5 bn) increase in childcare subsidies, doubling the number of eligible families to two million.
Members of the opposition Republican party reacted coolly to the ideas, suggesting they preferred that an anticipated federal budget surplus be refunded to the taxpayers. Senate majority leader Trent Lott said the most productive thing the government could do for parents was to "cut the tax burdens on the American family".
The president also said students should be required to attend summer school instead of being automatical ly promoted if they have failed to achieve a passing grade. Colleges and universities should be enlisted to help disadvantaged public school children.
"If you know a child from a poor family, tell her not to give up," he told a larger-than-usual national television audience drawn by the enormous attention to the sex scandal. "We can make college as universal as high school is today."
Mr Clinton also challenged Congress to significantly increase taxes on cigarettes to discourage teenagers from smoking and called for penalties against tobacco companies that market cigarettes to children.
l Three-quarters of public school teachers think they are doing a fine job readying their students for work or further education, according to a survey by the non-partisan group Public Agenda. But nearly 70 per cent of employers and more than half of college professors disagree. A diploma, they say, is no guarantee that the student knows even the basics.
"They can't spell, and there are other major flaws in their memos," one New York City employer said in a focus group conducted in connection with the poll. "The tenses are not consistent and all kinds of things are wrong. It all goes back to the schools. "
The dramatic difference in perception, and apparent complacency of teachers, could slow US educational reform efforts, researchers said.