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State of the Union: The Spotlight on Education

In his 1999 State of the Union, President Clinton proposed a five-point plan to improve America's public schools. The White House holds that these proposals mark a "sea-change" in national education policy -- "for the first time holding states and school districts accountable for progress and rewarding them for results." Clinton's goal is to encourage Congress to target federal dollars for programs that work, not those that do not.

In the last State of the Union address of this century, President Clinton proposed a five-point plan to improve the nation's public school system. After congratulating the nation for working to amass current successes -- including financial aid options that have "finally opened the doors of college to all Americans," state-developed academic standards, the creation of a voluntary national test, technology in the schools, and an emphasis on class-size reduction -- Clinton outlined his proposal to drive public education into the 21st century.

"Now each year the national government invests more than $15 billion in our public schools," said Clinton. "I believe we must change the way we invest that money to support what works and to stop supporting what does not work."

He unveiled his Education Accountability Act, which combines accountability and results. According to a White House background report, the Education Accountability Act is "designed to hold students, teachers and schools to high standards, and to ensure that school districts and states provide students with a high quality education."


First, Clinton states that schools must end social promotion. He underscores the valiant efforts of the Chicago school district, which ended social promotion but supported students by making summer school mandatory for those who were not achieving at expected levels. Under Clinton's plan, states and school districts would have to show how they will help students meet promotion standards on time by:

  • strengthening learning opportunities in the classroom with clear standards, small classes with well-prepared teachers, high quality professional development and use of proven instructional practices;

  • identifying students who need help at the earliest possible moment;

  • providing extended learning time, including after-school and summer school for students who need extra help; and

  • developing an effective remedial plan, with intensive intervention, for students who still do not meet the standards, so they can get back on track in their schooling.

Clinton's budget for the year 2000 proposes to triple federal funding for after-school and summer school programs (from $200 million to $600 million) to help schools that eliminate social promotion provide students with the extra help they need to succeed.


Next, Clinton demands that all states and school districts "must turn around their worst performing schools or shut them down." He notes that his policy is based on the efforts of North Carolina, where significant gains were made in test scores last year.

The President's budget includes $200 million to help states take steps to turn around schools. The Administration's legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires states to identify schools with the lowest achievement levels and least improvement. Corrective actions must be taken that could include intensive teacher training, support to improve school discipline, and implementation of proven approaches to school reform.

If these steps do not turn around the schools and improve student achievement in two years, Clinton's plan would require states to take additional corrective actions, such as permitting students to attend other public schools, or reconstituting the school by evaluating the staff and making any necessary staff changes, or closing the school and reopening it as a charter with an entirely new staff.


Clinton's third point stresses the need to put quality teachers in every classroom. The President pointed out that far too many teachers do not have college majors or minors in the subjects they teach. Under the ESEA proposal, states would be required to adopt performance examinations for all new teachers, requiring them to demonstrate both subject-matter knowledge and teaching expertise.

The plan also would mandate the phase-out, over five years, of the use of teachers with emergency certificates and the practice of assigning teachers to subjects for which they lack adequate preparation. Clinton's plan provides resources to help states strengthen teacher certification standards, test new teachers, provide training to current teachers, and give incentives to recruit more highly qualified teachers.

Clinton also plans to increase funding for his teacher recruitment effort enacted in last year's Higher Education Act, from $7.5 million to $35 million. The goal is to recruit 7,000 outstanding new teachers into high-need public schools by giving them scholarships in exchange for a commitment to teach.


Fourth is a call to "empower" parents by providing them with more information to make better educational choices for their children.

"In too many communities it's easier to get information on the quality of the local restaurants than on the quality of the local schools."

The President's ESEA proposal would require states to distribute to all parents annual report cards for each school and school district, as well as the state as a whole. He also makes provision in his budget for 3,000 charter schools to be created early in the next century.


Clinton also called for tougher discipline policies. "Schools must be a place of learning," he said. School staff must take steps to ensure order and safety, including adopting school uniforms, enforcing truancy laws, and imposing curfews. The ESEA proposal requires states and school districts to ratify discipline policies that "make sure students have the chance to learn and teachers have the chance to teach," according to the White House background report.

The President concluded his remarks on education by calling on Congress to grant financial support to communities trying to rebuild crumbling schools. Specifically, Clinton is proposing federal tax credits as incentives to help states and school districts to build and renovate public schools. Half of the bond authority would be allocated to the 100 school districts with the largest number of disadvantaged children, and the other half would be allocated to the states.


The White House holds that these proposals mark a "sea-change" in national education policy -- "for the first time holding states and school districts accountable for progress and rewarding them for results." Clinton's goal is to encourage Congress to target federal dollars for programs that work, not those that do not.

In his concluding remarks, Clinton reflected on the momentous occasion of delivering the final State of the Union address for this century:

"Tonight, as I deliver the last State of the Union Address for the 20th century, no one anywhere in the world can doubt the enduring resolve and boundless capacity of the American people to work toward that 'more perfect union' of our founders' dreams....

"We must all be profoundly grateful for the magnificent achievements of our forbearers in this century. Yet perhaps in the daily press of events, in the clash of controversy, we don't see our own time for what it truly is -- a new dawn for America.

"A hundred years from tonight, another American president will stand in this place and report on the State of the Union. He -- or she -- will look back on the 21st century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now.

"So let it be said of us then that we were thinking not only of our time, but of their time; that we reached as high as our ideals; that we put aside our divisions and found a new hour of healing and helpfulness; that we joined together to serve and strengthen the land we love.
"My fellow Americans, this is our moment. Let us lift our eyes as one nation, and from the mountaintop of this American century, look ahead to the next one -- asking God's blessing on our endeavors and on our beloved country."

Source: The Daily Report Card, published by the National Education Goals Panel

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