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Education Record Shines for Clinton

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Finn, a member of the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee and the National Assessment Governing Board, is also skeptical of Clinton's ability to forge ahead with tough reforms.

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When Clinton tried to impose competency tests on experienced teachers during the 1980s, an essential measure of school quality, he retreated in the face of political opposition. "He quit because people didn't like them. That's one of the criticisms of Clinton - that he tries to please everybody - he tends not to stick to controversial policies," says Finn.

It was Lamar Alexander, the current secretary of education and a leading figure in the Bush administration, who led the second wave of educational reform in 1986 (the first in the early 1980s with Southern states' legislation). Then Tennessee governor and National Governors' Association (NGA) chairman, Mr. Alexander appointed then New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and Clinton to head up a task force that came up with recommendations for a performance-based educational system.

Michael Cohen, director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, says that with his vast network, Clinton is the most qualified presidential candidate to help revamp the country's education system. "He finds people and draws them into his policy circle as advisers. Clinton does this better than any governor I've ever seen."

Mr. Cohen points to Clinton's leadership in the 1989 education summit between the Bush White House and the NGA. Cohen, then active in the NGA, says Bush called the summit but "clearly had no agenda, other than his 1988 campaign literature and the desire for a photo opportunity."

Clinton invited state and local school board members, teachers, principals, and a host of education reformers to assess their needs at an all-day Washington hearing, recounts Cohen. Clinton then worked hard to mobilize the other 49 governors to set national education goals and issue a joint statement with President Bush.

William Schweke, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Corporation for Private Enterprise Development, warns that national policymakers who fail to invest more in training and education are "committing economic suicide." A low-skilled work force traps American youth in poverty, he says.

A consultant for state and local governments, foundations, and chambers of commerce, Mr. Schweke says there's an important distinction between Clinton's economic approach, which stresses education, apprenticeship, technical training and career preparation, and other candidates' business-oriented approaches.

"You can monkey around all you want by offering incentives for businesses, such as an investment tax credit or the creation of enterprise zones, but it still comes down to whether you have the work force you need," he says.

Cohen is more blunt. "There's a stark contrast between George Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush has been nothing but rhetorical. If Bill Clinton had been president, he would explain to Americans that the entire country, not just parents of school-age children, has a stake in improved education."

Finn minimizes the differences between Bush and his Democratic challengers on needed educational reforms. Bush and the education secretary have proposed a national system of exams based on national education standards, a measure endorsed by Clinton. They face stiff opposition from strong lobbyists, he says. What remains to be seen, is just who has the fortitude to carry them through.