Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Results of Clinton Gamble on Education Are Unclear

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Results of Clinton Gamble on Education Are Unclear

By Richard Rothstein

Al Gore and George W. Bush talk a lot about education in the presidential campaign. Yet the federal role in education seems minor, 7 percent of school budgets. Are the candidates misleading the voters?

Not really. In his two terms, President Bill Clinton has shown that a shrewd chief executive can have a big impact on schools. But it is still unclear if his policy has been farsighted or reckless.

From the start, Mr. Clinton wanted higher standards but knew that resources to achieve them, like good facilities and qualified teachers were expensive and distributed unequally. Raising standards without added dollars could cause soaring failure rates for disadvantaged children.

With huge deficits, the president initially had no hope of getting much new spending. So he chose a high-risk approach, focusing first on standards and figuring states would be forced to add their own money later, perhaps through lawsuits. This is now happening, but the process isn’t over.

Mr. Clinton’s strategy took shape before the 1992 election. As Arkansas governor, he tried to influence President George Bush’s education policy. As president, Mr. Clinton expanded reforms he had prodded his predecessor to begin.

In 1989, representing the National Governors’ Association, Mr. Clinton negotiated with Mr. Bush’s domestic policy aides to establish “Goals 2000,” a call for higher standards.

A Clinton adviser then was Marshall Smith, dean of Stanford University’s school of education. Professor Smith urged “systemic reform,” an idea that more money by itself could not improve schools. Rather, reform must combine higher standards, testing whether students reach them, and holding schools accountable.

But, he added, higher standards could spur inequality if states did not give all students an “opportunity to learn” advanced content, because poor children are often less prepared at home and have teachers who are not trained to impart more sophisticated thinking skills.

To avoid this, Dr. Smith said, systemic reform must also ensure that all teachers are well-prepared and that facilities and materials for poor children are adequate.

In negotiations with President Bush’s staff, Governor Clinton fruitlessly sought financing to get poor children more ready to learn. In a joint news conference, Mr. Bush and the governors agreed that added money was desirable but said, “We understand the limits imposed on new spending by the Federal deficit.”

In 1993, Dr. Smith became undersecretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, and systemic reform became policy. But it became embroiled in disputes over “opportunity-to-learn” programs that cost money.

Some Democratic congressional leaders wanted no students held to higher standards without the resources to achieve them, but congressional Republicans and governors from both parties were ready to abandon reform if new expenditures were required. So Mr. Clinton decided not to support spending programs tied to the standards.

Jack Jennings, then an aide to House Democrats, says the president and his allies were gambling. They recognized that new spending proposals would scuttle reform, but also thought that once higher standards were in place, states would be forced, perhaps by lawsuits, to finance help for poor children to succeed.

Dr. Smith, now back at Stanford, recalls that he and other administration officials thought states would have to provide better trained teachers and resources for disadvantaged pupils, “forced by the clarity of the outcome requirements.”

Reform has proceeded much as the administration urged. States adopted new standards. Failing pupils are held back. But those who fail are more often poor and minority students.

Raising dollars to remedy this is mostly a state function, but unexpected federal surpluses also help. Mr. Clinton’s later budgets, unlike earlier ones, focus not on standards but on money for smaller classes, better trained teachers, and school construction and refurbishing.

Still, conflict between higher standards and inadequate resources occurs mostly at the state level. There, litigation has intensified, just as the administration expected. A New York State judge is weighing a claim that higher standards require more funds for New York City schools. New Jersey’s Supreme Court says the state must offer preschool to disadvantaged children and ensure that poor districts receive more state money than suburban ones.

In California, a new lawsuit demands equal access to advanced courses for poor children. An Ohio court recently ruled that standards were adopted without ensuring disadvantaged students the resources to meet them. But similar suits in Florida and Wisconsin have failed for now.

If states eventually provide enough new money, President Clinton will have been a visionary who maneuvered states into equalizing education after embracing high standards.

But if states continue to raise standards without resources to reach them, his impact will be more negative, leading to wider academic gaps between rich and poor.

Return to the Education Column Archive

See related work on Public Investment | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

See more work by Richard Rothstein