PRESIDENT Clinton interrupted his recent vacation in California to sign the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. In so doing, he completed something he helped start five years ago when he was still governor of Arkansas.
In 1989, President George Bush gathered the nation's 50 governors for an education summit in Charlottesville, Va. Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, who was head of the National Governors Association at the time, the politicians outlined first-ever national education goals for the year 2000.
Despite the change in presidential administrations, the original impetus for this legislation has remained intact, says Chris Pipho, director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
Bush's ``Education 2000'' became ``Goals 2000'' under Clinton, but the effort to make the goals into law continued. ``What we've seen is that education has stepped above politics a bit,'' Mr. Pipho says.
Clinton's Goals 2000 legislation does more than simply bring Congress on board with the education goals, however. It is a broad initiative to increase federal guidelines for public education and move the federal government beyond its traditional role of helping educate poor and disabled students and protect civil rights in schools.
This is the most sweeping education legislation to pass Congress in decades, Pipho says. ``For the most part, what we've done with education-related legislation in the last decade or so is to add on to the original programs,'' he says.
In recent years, however, economic competition from abroad has prompted both educators and politicians to push for a national effort to improve American schools.
Goals 2000 codifies the governors' six original education goals and adds two more: improved teacher training and increased parental involvement (see complete list, below left). The goals have been in place for four years already.
Yet the prospects for success in the year 2000 are mixed. Educators generally agree that American students have little hope of being first in the world in mathematics and science in just six years, for example.
But the legislation also authorizes nationwide academic standards for what students should know by the time they reach grades 4, 8, and 12.
``What this bill does for the first time in the entire history of the United States of America is to set world-class education standards for what every child in every American school should know in order to win when he or she becomes an adult,'' Clinton said just before signing the bill at a San Diego elementary school.
At least 45 states are planning, developing, or implementing new curriculum standards on their own, according to Policy Studies Associates in Washington.
The only subject with completed national standards is math. Standards for English, science, history, geography, civics, English, and the arts are expected to be drafted by this summer. But it could be years before the process is complete.
States that develop their own standards can submit them to a national panel which will offer a sort of Good Housekeeping ``seal of approval'' to state standards judged to be as rigorous as the national academic standards.
The national standards are voluntary for states, but widespread participation is expected. ``I would be surprised if any state says they don't want anything to do with this,'' Pipho says. ``I expect that they will all participate.''
The incentive is money, of course. When the legislation takes effect July 1, $105 million will be available for the first year. The bulk of those funds will go to states that apply for support of model education reform projects. In its second year, Clinton is expected to ask for $700 million for the program, and $1 billion in the third year.
THE greatest benefit of the legislation will be the creation of a national framework of expectations, says Terry Dozier, a former teacher-of-the-year from South Carolina.
``As a teacher, I always hoped I was expecting what I should of my students, but I really had absolutely nothing to judge that by,'' says Ms. Dozier, who is now an adviser to Secretary of Education Richard Riley. ``I think this will help all of us to have a benchmark by which we can measure how we're doing compared to what the rest of the nation and the world expects their students to know and be able to do.''
But some education experts are skeptical about this legislation's prospects for actually improving educational practices in the classroom. ``We're buying a pig in a poke with unknowable consequences,'' says Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education. ``There's a very good chance that this will do at least as much harm as good.''
The harm could come in ``federalizing'' the education problem, Mr. Finn says. He views it as dangerous to ``give the impression around the country that education is now the federal government's responsibility and lift it off the shoulders of states and localities.''
Another problem, Finn says, is that the legislation excludes tests. ``Meaningful assessments with consequences are vital,'' he says.
Despite its focus on goals and standards, the Goals 2000 legislation includes other provisions as well. For example:
* The Safe Schools Act provides $20 million in fiscal 1994 for violence-prevention programs and improving security in schools.
* Another amendment to the new law bans all indoor smoking at federally funded education, health, and day-care programs. Administrators who fail to enforce the ban are subject to fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.