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Clinton Pitches Federal Strategy For School Reform to Governors

By Nick Anderson
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton made his case Monday for a new federal strategy of school reform to perhaps the toughest audience in America a roomful of governors who all style themselves experts in overhauling public education.

And when the governors emerged from the White House, the Republicans among them who make up the majority offered pointed critiques of Clinton's plan to hold schools accountable for improved performance and students accountable for mastering their course work.

Some called it a misguided intrusion of Washington bureaucracy into the affairs of local school officials. Many complained that the federal government is failing to reimburse states in full for complying with federal rules for teaching students with learning disabilities and other special needs.

Even some Democratic governors, who generally lauded Clinton's plans, asked him to give state officials more flexibility in how they can spend federal dollars.

All of the state chief executives attending a four-day conference of the National Governors' Association agreed that whatever policy Washington adopts at a time when education tops the to-do list of most voters and public officials should complement, not complicate, local reform initiatives.

"Let's have a national agenda for improvement of education, not a federal agenda," said Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican. "There's a big difference."

Whatever the debate's outcome, analysts say school superintendents, principals and teachers should prepare for another flurry of get-tough directives this year as political leaders gravitate to the issue of school reform. Some warn that such mandates can backfire unless schools get adequate resources.

"It's probably going to increase the pressure to do better without putting any infrastructure in place to say how to do better," said Frank Smith, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College in New York.

States across the country in recent years have toughened their standards for what children should learn and added new tests to make sure schools are up to the task, all in the name of "school accountability."

In his speech Monday, Clinton told the governors that he understood their concerns. But he challenged them to work with Washington to improve the nation's schools. "Some will say the federal government should be giving states more flexibility, not demanding more accountability," Clinton said.