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United States: bandwagons roll in hunt for schools' magic bullet

The cry for school reform rang loud in the US in 1996. Searching for the ever-elusive "magic bullet" for America's troubled schools, reformers have jumped on a dozen different bandwagons.

From vouchers, teacher training, academic standards, and "charter" schools, to uniforms and truancy tickets, a wide range of medicines is now being tested on America's education ills.

Public attitudes towards education - particularly the publicly-funded schools - now seem to evince the same frustration, distrust, demands for change and readiness to slay the sacred cows that have infected American politics at the national level since 1992.

In one symptom of the country's mood, General Julius Becton became the second former military leader given the mission of cleaning up a major urban school system, in Washington DC, following the appointment of General John Stanford in Seattle. "Failure is not an option," he said, as he considered sending armed guards into the most violent schools.

In California, outrage over dismal reading standards has fed a return to old-fashioned grind in the phonics method of reading, over "whole-language" approaches that encourage the recognition of words.

In the national election, President Bill Clinton used family issues, including schools, to reach out to suburban "soccer moms", the hard-stretched mothers juggling home and work who were touted as the new floating voters.

As the Federal Government only provides a fraction of the financing for schools, about 90 per cent of the burden lies on individual states and districts, Mr Clinton could talk education without having to come up with the cash.

He took one campaign trip to Monrovia, California, for example, to praise the city's new law requiring police officers to serve 125-dollar tickets (#163;80) on truants caught outside school, though the initiative had absolutely nothing to do with the White House. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, spoke up for school uniforms, now being reinstated across the country.

For years, report after report warned that American schools were performing so poorly that they posed a threat to the country's future. The charter schools, publicly financed but with local control largely in the hands of teachers and parents, have been one popular response, and their numbers and influence have continued to grow this year.

Privatisation, as in contracting out the running of public schools to private companies, took a bad blow when one firm, Education Alternatives Inc foundered badly and very publicly at the end of 1995. Favourable reports emerged this summer, about results from four public-private schools run by the rival Edison Project, but EAI's failures in Miami, Baltimore, and Hartford, Connecticut, have left a sour taste.

Voucher systems, however, seem to be on the rise. The city of Milwaukee's experiment, giving low-income families vouchers to pay for private tuition at the school of their choice, has not dramatically raised academic standards but parents like it. After six years it has not, as critics predicted, pulled the public system apart.

Teachers' unions remain implacably suspicious of privatisation and "school choice". They have instead led demands for change in teacher training and teaching standards, boosted by a report showing America pays more attention to the qualifications of vets than teachers.

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