WASHINGTON -- Goals 2000 was born as a celebrated campaign to make American students the smartest in the world by 2000. States would get federal money to buy state-of-the-art resources, hire gifted teachers and ensure that schools are safe, drug-free places where knowledge would flourish.
But since it took effect last year, conservatives have declared war on what was once a clearly bipartisan initiative. Goals 2000, they contend, encourages a politically correct curriculum, permissive sex-education classes, and a feel-good, student-centered environment that turns out poorly trained, undisciplined young adults.
Now they aim to translate that resistance into the force of law. This month, the ax of the House Republicans fell on Goals 2000 as an appropriations subcommittee voted to deny it money in next year's budget.
The subcommittee vote was merely the latest attack. Last month, two states refused to participate in Goals 2000 -- rejecting federal money. Their stated reason: The program gave the federal government too much authority over education, which has been a state and local responsibility.
"It centralizes power and eliminates choice," said Bob Morrison, education policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group that opposes Goals 2000. "It will lead to a lowering of national standards. It's a process the federal government has its finger on all the way down the line."
Long before it ran into a storm of opposition, Goals 2000 was a bipartisan project, with then-President George Bush, a Republican who billed himself as "the education president," solidly behind it. Mr. Bush helped develop the plan at the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., where he and the nation's governors met to establish goals to try to lift public schools out of "mediocrity, social decay and national decline," Mr. Bush said .
The governor of Arkansas at the time, Bill Clinton, also played an instrumental role. And in March 1994, as president, Mr. Clinton signed Goals 2000 legislation.
Maryland, which has been a leader in the campaign to improve public school performance, is among 48 states that have received part of the $105 million that Congress allocated to Goals 2000. But last month, Virginia and New Hampshire rejected the money because, their governors said, the program would allow the federal government to dictate public education.
"We don't need to have [education policy] dictated to us from Washington," said Ken Stroupe, a spokesman for Republican Gov. George F. Allen of Virginia.
The New Hampshire Board of Education voted not to accept the funds, said Jim Rivers, spokesman for Gov. Stephen Merrill, also a Republican. "New Hampshire should have sole sovereignty in education, and Goals 2000 money came with too many strings attached," Mr. Rivers said.
One of those "strings" was the application to receive the funds, said Pat Genestreti, who resigned from the state's Board of Education this month and voted against Goals 2000.
"I've never known a government program without any strings attached," he said. "The first thing is you have to apply. Well, that's a condition. There's no guarantee we could get the money. If there are truly no conditions, all the government had to do was mail us a check to the state of New Hampshire."
Critics also claim Goals 2000 supports health care clinics with sex education and free condoms, a liberal history curriculum and NTC an atmosphere that de-emphasizes grades and rigorous classes.
But supporters of Goals 2000 point out that it is a purely voluntary program under which states can devise their own curriculums. It is not, they say, an effort by the federal government to regulate education or to set a national curriculum. On the contrary, supporters note that the program calls for state and local governments, not the federal government, to take the lead in determining the programs that schools adopt.
"This is really everything folks want out of education," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach in Maryland. "Students are working at higher levels and participating."
Mike Cohen, a senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, contends that most of the opponents can't back up what they contend about Goals 2000.
"There's a small, but very vocal and well-organized group that is opposed to it," Mr. Cohen said. "They stirred up a bit of noise, and they aren't attacking what the law does. They are just making things up.
"They call it 'federal intrusion' when in fact there are fewer regulations and many safeguards in the law," Mr. Cohen said. "They argue Goals 2000 is going to require outcome-based education, require schools to have clinics. There is nothing in the law that says that. It makes it very clear that all those decisions are local and state." Outcomes-based education is designed to evaluate students based on what they know and can do, rather than on the number of classroom hours spent. Critics, however, complain outcome-based education can be a way to judge attitudes rather than academic achievement and promote political correctness and liberal opinions. Mr. Morrison, of the Family Research Council, said the approach, for example, encourages students to accept homosexuality.
To receive Goals 2000 funding, state and local governments must develop plans to raise academic achievement by supporting teachers' development, expanding the use of computers in classrooms, raising academic standards and increasing parental involvement in education.
"If they do that . . . and if the state will do that with grass-roots,
bottom-up involvement, then we will give them a small amount of money," Mr. Cohen said.
But Mr. Morrison contends that a small amount of money is often critical for states that are hard-pressed to find enough funding for education. As a result, he says, although Goals 2000 does not require states to adopt specific programs, states might find it easiest and quickest to adopt programs similar to liberal ones developed in other states.
Mr. Morrison cites Pennsylvania and Oregon as two states that ** receive Goals 2000 funds to apply outcomes-based education.
"A lot of states operate under severe financial restraint and when you hold out money and say you can get it by jumping through these hoops . . . they're going to do it," he said.
Meanwhile, in Congress, 110 House members proposed last month to disband the education department including Goals 2000, and use the money saved for education "block grants" for states to use as they see fit. The House leadership backs the legislation, which is also supported by one Maryland Republican, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.
The House has also voted to rescind $32 million from the $403 million allocated to Goals 2000 in 1995, in addition to the vote by a House subcommittee to deny money to it in 1996.
"It was an attempt by the federal government to re-engineer our society," Mr. Bartlett said. "With layers of bureaucracy and red tape, it was really going to hamstring the local people."
Maryland was ahead of the federal government in developing a program to improve academic achievement, in 1990. The state combined its "Schools for Success" program, which is similar to Goals 2000, with the federal program and receives $1.4 million from the government.
The program finds schools that are "extremely distant from the standards and declining," Mr. Peiffer said. Five schools in Baltimore have been identified and must make a plan to improve the school's academic record through program and staff changes.
Mr. Peiffer disputes critics' arguments that Goals 2000 represents a federal encroachment on education.
"I'm a little bit baffled by that accusation," he said. "I don't see this. This really is an opportunity to get money in education in the right places and fuel overall school improvement."
Mr. Peiffer's argument could become moot if Congress succeeds in eliminating Goals 2000 from the federal budget. Many see a dim future for it.
"I hope the future of Goals 2000 is that the thing will be defeated," Mr. Bartlett said.