Why Smaller Classes?

We've heard the second thoughts that have arisen since President Clinton announced his $12 billion program to train thousands of new public-school teachers and thus reduce classroom sizes in the earliest grades.

Yes, there are lots of obstacles to this simple-sounding plan. Will states respond with required matching funds? How will good teaching candidates be recruited? Is it actually proved that smaller classes lead to higher grades? Finally, is this really the best use of the money?

But we still think this is an item that merits consideration on the nation's agenda - for one overriding reason. Those schools potentially most benefited - the often dingy halls of learning in our inner cities - represent perhaps the single greatest failure in America. If children going through those schools, predominantly black and Hispanic children, don't acquire math skills, reading ability, and a glimpse of a better future, the whole country loses.

The devotion of thought and resources to improving elementary and secondary education for minority kids in US cities makes sense - economically and socially.

Any initiative that focuses attention on this educational need is of value. But more teachers and smaller class sizes aren't necessarily panaceas. Much depends on how well prepared new teachers are for the particular challenges of the urban classroom. A lot can be learned from those relatively few schools - in nearly every city - that prosper despite the odds. The human element outweighs the dollar figures.

But the dollars for education in the Clinton plan are a practical necessity. They should be mustered, with bipartisan support, even if the tobacco revenue the administration is partially counting on doesn't materialize. And any state that wants more youthful scholars and fewer youthful criminals would be foolish not to muster matching funds.

The push to elevate urban education has to begin somewhere, and if it can be proved beneficial, the president's proposal to bring down class sizes is a reasonable first step.

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