Clinton's school-repair plan rides opportune timing

After two failed attempts to pass his proposal, increased focus on school issues may force Congress to act.

For the third time, the Clinton administration is bringing to Capitol Hill its plan to modernize dilapidated and overcrowded schools.

What's different this time? The increasing focus on education in Congress and the presidential race might force Republican lawmakers to act, the president hopes.

In the previous two years, Republicans have steadfastly rejected the White House proposal to give schools more than $25 billion for repairs and construction. They have argued that it doesn't allow states enough spending flexibility. But administration officials say pressure is mounting on Congress to address one of the most far-reaching issues in education today.

"This is one of the areas where we can make some progress this fall," says Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman. "With Republicans talking more and more about the importance of moving on education, it becomes harder and harder to explain why they could move on education generally, but not this one issue."

President Clinton visited mobile classroom 103 at Crossroads Middle School in South Brunswick, N.J. yesterday, and he was expected to make a plea to Congress to help him fix leaky roofs and get rid of container classrooms. With school enrollments projected to increase for the next century, the topic has become more important.

"Temporary, portable classrooms do not facilitate learning," says James Warfel, principal at Crossroads, which has eight portable classrooms. The district has doubled in size in seven years.

Portable classrooms now dot the grounds at one-third of America's schools. Mr. Warfel says they are cramped, don't have the same access to the main building's technology or facilities, and make for messy traipsing around in winter.

The president's plan calls for spending $25 billion to help 6,000 schools modernize facilities or build new ones. Another $1.3 billion would be available for emergency repairs. The funds would pay the interest on local and state school bonds. Interest on a typical 30-year bond almost equals the amount borrowed.

There is an "urgent need" for repairs, says John Emekli, a Department of Education spokesman. A 1999 Energy Department survey found that schools need $127 billion to bring themselves into good condition. Half the schools surveyed said at least one basic feature - heat, plumbing, roofs, sprinklers - was less than adequate.

Republicans don't deny there's a need. And they're not being stingy, says Paige Ralston, spokesperson for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois. In fact, she says, the GOP-led Congress has increased education spending since they've been in power - outspending their Democratic predecessors.

"It's not the money," she says. It's just Republicans don't believe the federal government should be telling states and local communities how to spend their money. The GOP favors block grants, which let localities decide whether the money goes to bricks and mortar or teachers and textbooks.

The administration counters that the problems are so acute, and so widespread, that they require focused attention. More than 220 Democrats and Republicans have co-sponsored a House bill similar to Clinton's proposal - another reason the administration is hopeful its plan will pass this year.

So far, the House leadership has remained firm against the plan. Yet in 1998 - also an election year - Republicans were opposed to a plan to fund 100,000 more teachers, but they gave in during the year-end negotiations.

The administration "could very well get it," says Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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