Education has soared to the top of the American public's concerns, edging out crime as the issue most demanding attention.
Confronted with poor student performance and weak school standards, educators, parents, businessmen, and politicians are giving virtually unprecedented consideration to a more national approach to reforms. Proposals for voluntary national testing, defining new standards, and expanding school choice are all under scrutiny.
But there are deep divisions over how much of a role the federal government should have in solving the problem.
"The question of a federal role is an extremely contentious one. But there is a growing consensus that the country needs a national strategy, even among the governors," says Robert Schwartz, president of Alliance Inc., a new resource center founded by the nation's governors to provide information on state standards.
President Clinton and Congress are about to square off over this issue, as House and Senate lawmakers prepare the final version of a $269 billion annual spending bill for education, labor, and health programs.
"If Congress sends me partisan legislation that denies our children high national standards, or weakens our national commitment to stronger schools, ... I'll veto it," President Clinton said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.
At stake: funding for the president's proposal for voluntary national tests and a controversial block-grant amendment that would let school districts decide how to spend some $11 billion in federal funds now targeted to programs such as charter schools, bilingual education, computers, and drug-free schools.
Last week, the House voted against funding Clinton's proposed voluntary national tests. The Senate backed a revised version of national tests. It narrowly passed an amendment that would support a block-grant approach to funding leading federal K-12 education programs.
"Over time, Washington gradually took responsibility for education from our home towns and put it in the hands of federal bureaucrats," says Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, sponsor of the controversial amendment. Federal funds account for just 7 percent of K-12 spending.
"Since 1960, education spending has risen 200 percent, but SAT scores are down. Teachers used to make up two-thirds of our full-time school staff. Now it's barely half. And the schools are more dangerous than ever," he added in the Republican response to Clinton's weekly radio address.
The success of the Gorton amendment caught many lawmakers and the White House by surprise. A comparable amendment was proposed in the House, but quickly withdrawn for lack of support. White House advisers say they expect the block-grant amendment will fall out of the final bill lawmakers negotiate next week.
Congressional opposition to national tests has deeper roots. The lopsided 295 to 125 House vote included conservative Republicans, who argue that a national test would threaten local control of education, and liberal Democrats, who say that low scores on a national test could stigmatize minority groups. The same coalition defeated a similar testing proposal by President Bush.
But White House advisers insist that public opinion is on their side.
"We had an election a year ago that centered on the federal government's role in education. The public isn't buying the extremist argument that federal bureaucrats are taking over the classroom. Polls suggest that the public is far more concerned about pitching in and doing something about education," says Mike Cohen, the president's special adviser on education.
The latest Gallup poll signals strong support for new national initiatives. Two-thirds of the public favors the proposal for placing a computer with access to the Internet in every public school classroom, and 57 percent supports Clinton's voluntary national tests of student achievement in reading and math.
Both politicians and the public are suspicious that politics could bias the process. Senators backed the president's testing proposal only after the tests were turned over to a bipartisan board, rather than left in the hands of political appointees in the Education Department. And when Gallup pollsters asked if people favored a standardized national test (leaving Clinton's name off the proposal), support jumped to 67 percent.
State governors are also reluctant to let Washington write the test. Only seven states have signed on to the testing plan. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad flat out refused: "The last thing we need is bureaucrats in Washington devising some politically correct test. We have in Iowa some of the best testing in the country," he said at a Republican National Committee briefing on Sept. 5.
But behind the partisan rhetoric are signs that a strong consensus is emerging for national if not federal solutions to the nation's No. 1 problem.
In 1989, President Bush, top business leaders, and national governors agreed to set national educational goals. Nearly all states are now developing their own standards and tests to meet those national goals. So far, results have been mixed.
"There have been some judgments on these state standards, mainly negative. In history, state standards are abysmal. States prefer vague and contentless standards," says Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bush and now with Brookings Institution.
Student test score are rising, and students are taking tougher courses. But 40 percent of fourth-graders are still reading below basic levels, and eighth-graders still score well below the average of the rest of the world. Significant racial gaps persist.
That record has prompted business leaders to take a more active role in the issue. "Education used to be a mommy issue. Now corporate America is finding out the costs of an inadequately trained work force. They have to deal with it every day," says Paul Anir of the conservative lobby group Empower America.
Cleveland businessman David Brennan says he started three schools in his city because "the quality of students we saw coming in ... was so dismal."
"There's a broad consensus between the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the 240 high-tech CEOs in this country that we need national standards and that we need a voluntary national assessment of English and math," says Alan Wurtzel, former CEO of Circuit City and a member of the executive board of the National Alliance of Business.
Comparing state standards
Last March, the National Governors' Association (NGA) convened 46 governors to assess progress on meeting national standards. Each governor brought a top business leader in the state. They agreed to set up a new organization to help governors compare states' standards.
"For the first time, we heard governors asking questions like, 'Are our standards good enough?' or 'Should we start teaching fractions in the second or fourth grade?' " says Patty Sullivan, an NGA spokesman. "Governors used to be very uncomfortable going head to head.... Now they're working with us to get comparable data. It's a sea change," she adds.
Experts such as Ms. Ravitch say that politicians and the public need to view educational reform like a race to the moon.
"We will be years working through the nature of the new federal role in education. This should be approached with great deliberation and not be made an election-year issue. Kennedy said we will send a man to the moon. Clinton needs to see this issue in the same vein: We will send a man to the moon, but not before the next election."