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Education Record Shines for Clinton

By Amy KaslowStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1992


IF the presidential campaign lens reflected more on Democratic candidate Bill Clinton's issues than on his character, the Arkansas governor says, his experience as a state leader would shine brightly.

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Governor Clinton is particularly proud of his record as an educational reformer in the poor, rural South. He says his work there demonstrates what he can accomplish across the United States.

Near rock-bottom of the nation's state economies, Arkansas has suffered from the country's worst economic ills: a poorly educated work force, inadequate research and development to bolster industry in highly competitive markets, and insufficient capital to start up new firms and expand those that exist.

Struggling not to fall further behind, Arkansas and other poor Southern states enacted watershed education reform legislation during the 1980s. Clinton faced the greatest challenge.

When he took office in 1979, education expenditures, teacher salaries, and the percentage of college graduates were the lowest in the nation. He saw poor educational standards and a low-skilled work force as the primary obstacles to economic development.

Through tax hikes Clinton boosted education spending and raised teachers' salaries and he tried to weed out incompetent teachers by mandating certification tests, notes David Osborne, who documented Clinton's and other governors' efforts in his book "Laboratories of Democracy: A New Breed of Governor Creates Models for National Growth."

Clinton has also tried to lure international corporations to the state with a host of investment incentives and low Arkansan wages. He argued that a broader tax base would provide more funding for education.

Arkansas banker Cecil Cupp Jr., who chairs Arkansas Bank and Trust and the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, supported the higher taxes to finance education. A former Bush backer, he's now supporting Clinton's presidential bid. If past is prologue, says Mr. Cupp, Clinton "will be sensitive to [the nation's] industrial development and work force [vocational training] education so that American labor can be more competitive with Japan and Europe."

Education experts do not dispute that Clinton raised voters' consciousness about the link between better education and economic mobility.

But they note that despite dramatic increases in the state's educational budget, real progress has been slow. Under Clinton's stewardship, Arkansas state schools have edged up only slightly from their near-bottom rank in national standing.

Today, on the campaign trail, Clinton talks of "investing in human capital," and "empowering the individual with more responsibilities and opportunities." But beyond the rhetoric is a basic question: Will Clinton be able to transfer his priorities on a state level into leadership goals on the national level?

Chester Finn Jr., author of "We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future," cautions against assuming that what Clinton fought for on a state level can be transferred to the national level.

"There is a fundamental difference between what a governor and a president can do. A governor is responsible for education in the state, while the president is a national leader, a figure who persuades people to do something differently on the state and local level," he says.

Primary and secondary schools are almost entirely outside the purview of the federal government, which provides only 6 percent of the funding for kindergarten through Grade 12 schooling. Through tax revenues, state and local municipalities finance the remaining 94 percent, and local school districts run the schools. Without raising taxes or the deficit, Clinton will be hard-pressed to make good on his promise to increase federal outlays by 50 percent ($7.5 billion), says Mr. Finn.