Washington's Chalk Talk on How to Remake the Classroom

Education is the issue du jour at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Both Senate Republicans and Democrats have included education proposals in their first 10 bills. But don't expect big changes overnight in America's classrooms. Federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of all education funding. Many of the proposals now surfacing have less to do with what goes into student notebooks and more to do with easing the pressure on parental pocketbooks. Washington can, however, influence the direction and tone of policies.

President Clinton joined lawmakers this week by outlining the education provisions in the budget proposal he will send to Congress Feb. 6. He urged increases in charter-school spending, a hike in funds for computers, and a 26 percent increase (some $620 million) in spending for Goals 2000, an education-standards program that emphasizes mastery of basic reading, math, and science skills.

Many Republicans object to Goals 2000 as emblematic of unnecessary federal meddling in local curricula. But gone is the talk about closing the Education Department. Republican lawmakers will continue to press for "school choice" vouchers that would pay for private schooling, adult literacy programs, and education investment accounts. Democrats want to increase spending on college-tuition grants, school construction, and computers in the classroom. Both propose tax exemptions or deductions for some college expenses.

On both sides of the Senate aisle there is optimism that legislation will pass, maybe even this year. "I think that if you take all the proposals on both sides and sit down and work through that, there's some things we might come to agreement on," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

"Obviously in the effort to find a bipartisan agenda, in my view one of the first real prospects for that to happen this year will be in education," says minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Most of the proposals fall into the following areas:

Literacy. Mr. Clinton proposes "America Reads" legislation to fund 30,000 reading specialists and volunteer coordinators. They would train 1 million volunteer reading tutors to teach 3 million children at a cost of $2.75 billion over five years. Senate Republicans would give states $400 million in block grants to establish adult-literacy programs and $100 million for child-literacy grants.

Higher education. Senate Republicans would create educational investment accounts that would allow a family to put $1,000 yearly into an investment account and use the proceeds to pay for college tuition with no tax on the gains. They also propose making $2,500 a year in interest on student loans tax deductible during the first 60 months; exempting state prepaid-tuition plans and federal work-study programs from federal tax; and making permanent the tax exemption of up to $5,250 a year in employer-provided education aid.

Senate Democrats tout the president's "Hope scholarships" of $1,500 for first-year college students. Students with a "B" average who are drug-free would get another $1,500 for their second year. Alternatively, families could benefit from restoring tax deductions abolished in 1986 for up to $10,000 for the first two years of college-tuition costs. Families earning less than $100,000 a year and individuals earning less than $70,000 a year would be eligible for an additional $10,000 in tax deductions for the last two years of college and graduate school.

The president Tuesday also proposed expanding Pell grants, increasing the amount a student can receive from $2,700 a year to $3,000, and backed tax-free college savings accounts.

Vouchers. The GOP bill calls for a five-year, $50 million experiment in 20 to 30 school districts to give children vouchers to attend alternative institutions, including private and parochial schools, if their current schools are, in the words of bill sponsor Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, "certifiably unsafe, certifiably drug ridden." States would get block grants if they allow parents and teachers to be notified of crime and drug incidents at school or suspend driver's licenses of children under 18 who are convicted of drug offenses.

Public-school officials and teachers' unions oppose vouchers. "The first thing that we need is for Congress to stop vouchers. Those in no way improve - only weaken - public education," says Susan Burgess, chairman of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg (N.C.) Board of Education.

School construction. Clinton and Senate Democrats propose federal reimbursement of up to 50 percent of the interest on tax-exempt bonds for new-school construction or renovation of existing buildings. This four-year, $5 billion program would be funded by the one-time auction of digital-television frequencies set for sometime before Oct. 1.

Senator Lott says he has concerns about this plan, "especially when the states have [budget] surpluses, and that has traditionally been a local responsibility."

New technology. Congressional Democrats and the White House want full funding of the Education Technology Fund, some $2 billion over five years, to help schools buy computer equipment and provide Internet access.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Republicans propose fully funding the act, which would cost $10 billion over seven years and bring the federal share of the program up to the 40 percent originally promised in the law.

Democrats say they will pay for their programs with budget cuts elsewhere. "There's probably little likelihood we're going to raise taxes to do this, so I think it's critical that we find the savings from other parts of the budget," Senator Daschle says.

While crediting Washington's embrace of education reform, David Crandall, president of The Network Inc., a nonprofit educational research and training group in Andover, Mass., says most of the proposals do not address a key problem in schools today: retraining teachers.

"When you get down to the bottom line of what's going on in classrooms that is different, if all that's been done is putting three computers in there, with no training for teachers and if no part of the teaching plan includes anything different, then all you've got is the same old same old."

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