WASHINGTON -- President Clinton scrambled yesterday to pull the nation's governors behind his proposal to link federal education aid to school and student performance, as a growing chorus of skeptics questioned whether the idea would simply multiply the federal regulations governing local school districts.
Clinton met with 53 state and territorial governors at the White House to promote a proposal that could prove to be the most dramatic change in federal education funding since the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s.
He acknowledged that its passage would take "tough politics."
While Republicans and Democrats agreed to the need for more accountability in education, they differed widely on how and by whom that accountability would be enforced.
With the White House and control of Congress up for grabs next year, both sides fretted that presidential politics could get in the way.
"The federal government should be a limited partner, not a general partner," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the unannounced GOP front-runner in the 2000 race for the White House.
"If they feel like sending money back to the states, fine. But don't tell us how to run things."
Even Democrats who back Clinton, at least in concept, acknowledge their concerns.
"I applaud the president for saying it's time for us to demand not just more money but better performance, better quality in our classrooms," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose relationship with Clinton has vacillated between icy wariness and ardent support.
But, Glendening acknowledged, "for a lot of governors, there's a natural fear that goals and standards might become federal regulations controlling local schools."
Although Clinton has made Social Security the centerpiece for his 1999 legislative agenda, his proposals on education are among his most daring.
The president's proposed budget includes $1.4 billion to hire and train teachers, tax breaks to subsidize the construction and modernization of 6,000 schools, a tripling of funding for after-school and summer school programs, and money to wire more schools to the Internet.
Clinton wants strings attached.
The landmark, 34-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act must be updated this year, and the administration will push for a measure to link federal aid to performance standards, for teachers and school districts.
Schools would have to agree that students will be promoted from grade to grade only if they have mastered necessary academic skills.
Teachers would have to meet certain training requirements in the subjects they are teaching.
Schools would have to adopt and enforce discipline codes, and districts would have to issue report cards on each school to help parents understand how their schools are performing.
"We don't have any business telling you whom to hire, how to teach, how to run schools," Clinton reassured the governors. "But let's not kid ourselves.
"We are not doing our children any favors by continuing to subsidize practices that don't work and failing to invest in practices that do."
In theory, conservatives wholeheartedly agree.
They have been pushing a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would allow states to use federal education dollars however they wish, as long as they can prove their programs are working, said Chester Finn, a former Reagan education official who studies education reform at the conservative Hudson Institute.
"Freedom for results -- that would be dramatic change, but dramatic change is exactly what the Elementary and Secondary Education Act needs," Finn said. "Thirty-four years of failure is not something to replicate."
But Republicans question who will establish the performance standards, who will police school performance, and who will decide whether the schools have performed well enough to get their federal aid.
The president's proposal, in some sense, flies in the face of Republican proposals to turn federal aid into large block grants to the states, as they did with welfare aid, or to grant states waivers from federal regulation.
"The prospectus of investment that the people of America support, in my judgment, is for the federal government to invest, but to invest as a limited partner, not as the managing partner," said Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican.
"We believe that linking federal investment to specific local programs is unhelpful."
That tepid response from the governors could doom the proposal.
A former governor himself, Clinton clearly wanted the states' backing to overcome stiff opposition on Capitol Hill, especially from House Republicans. Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, charged this month that Clinton's proposal could mean that the federal government will supply 8 percent of the funds for elementary and secondary education, and virtually all the regulations.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico proposed yesterday to increase education spending by 40 percent -- or about $40 billion over five years -- with "as few strings attached as possible."
Clinton aides are adamant about the president's proposals, and they warn that re-enactment of the largest federal education act could be delayed until Congress agrees to a compromise to the president's liking.
"It may take us a long time, but we're going to have to do it this year," a top Clinton aide said yesterday. "We have no choice."
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said the federal government could help formulate the performance standards, but the states and school districts would decide how to meet them.
The standards would not have to be new. Existing national achievement tests and Clinton's Goals 2000 program, which established voluntary national standards, could be used to establish objective performance standards. Nineteen states, including Maryland, already use such measurements to reward or punish schools.
"What I think they want is that they decide how to do it. That's fine. But it has to be done," said a frustrated Riley after the governors' meeting.
"We can no longer have schools that aren't performing, drifting kids through there and they can't get a job. That can't go on."
White House aides insist that once the rhetoric blows over, a compromise can be reached. The National Governors Association has promised to put together a bipartisan task force to examine how performance standards could be adopted without sacrificing local control of education.
"I think there's going to be a lot of push and pull and a lot of discussion," Glendening predicted yesterday, "but I believe what will probably come out is some increased federal aid for education with a pretty strict requirement that states meet some type of performance standard."
Pub Date: 2/23/99