As BILL CLINTON ROARS INTO ACTION, demagoguing the education issue, he proves he's still a master manipulator of the domestic agenda and that when it comes to schools, he remains more surefooted and silver-tongued than anyone on Capitol Hill.

This latest installment of the education debate pits the administration's focus-group-tested (and union adored) class-size reduction scheme against an earnest GOP reform proposal called the Teacher Empowerment Act. Having cleared the House education committee on June 30, this bill should reach the House floor in mid summer. It merges several existing programs, giving states and localities greater leeway to spend nearly $ 2 billion per year to improve student achievement by strengthening teachers. This "teacher empowerment" can take many forms, including training, testing, changes in certification, and even a limited form of vouchers ("Teacher Opportunity Payments" or TOPs) that would allow teachers to choose their own forms of "professional development."

This Republican proposal is generally sound, but not without faults. TOPs, for example, only click in when a school district consistently fails to raise teacher quality through its own programs. In other words, they are more like punishment for bureaucrats than a right for teachers. Another fault: The bill entrusts less than five percent of its funds to states, even though governors' offices and legislative chambers are where most of the energy for reforming U.S. schools is found. Most of the money would keep flowing directly to the school districts, few of which can be called dynamic in terms of leadership or innovation.

One might have expected the bill to ruffle some feathers, since it practically ignores Clinton's once-cherished Goals 2000 program. But the administration doesn't seem to mind at all. Goals don't poll nearly as well as smaller classes, which have become the new object of the president's transient affections. The popularity of smaller classes enabled the White House to bully Congress last year into okaying the famous "100,000 new teachers" program, which has its own dedicated funding stream. Republicans have had second thoughts ever since, and the Teacher Empowerment Act affords them a chance to undo the mischief.

The new measure still makes districts spend a portion of their teacher dollars on class size reduction. It just doesn't say how much. One dollar, evidently, would suffice. Thus there would no longer be a separate funding stream. Each community would decide whether to spend its federal largesse on more teachers or better ones. Republicans believe, apparently, that simply killing Clinton's effort to reduce class size is too risky; keeping just a remnant of it, however, may prove even riskier.

The president, of course, has been more than happy to oblige Republicans in their request for a rematch on the issue of class size. Here is how he seized the issue in his weekly radio address on June 26:

I'm pleased to announce that later this week we'll deliver on our promise -- with $ 1.2 billion in grants to help states and local school districts begin hiring the first 30,000 well-trained teachers for the new school year. . . . Now we must finish the job. Unfortunately, there are some in Congress who are backing away from their commitment to reduce class size. Last year, Congress came together across party lines to make this promise to the American people. They should come together again this year to keep it. . . . So, today, again I call on Congress to put politics aside and put our children's future first, and finish the job of hiring 100,000 highly trained teachers. We know smaller classes will help them succeed in school. We know higher-quality teaching will help them succeed. We already have the plan to make it happen if Congress keeps its word.

Note the faux bipartisanship which, at least in education, has come to mean "Republicans are welcome to do things my way." Note, too, the bald claim that placing kids in smaller classes will "help them succeed in school."

That the case against reducing class size is strong may not help Republicans. Indeed, a few days before Clinton spoke, the American Institutes of Research released an appraisal of the first two years of California's ambitious class-shrinking program, launched by former governor Pete Wilson at a cost of some $ 1.5 billion annually. The results were at best mixed: a tiny boost in pupil achievement accompanied by a falloff in teacher qualifications, an acute classroom shortage, a worrisome shift of veteran teachers from cities to suburbs, little change in instructional practices, and the distraction of educators from other urgent reforms such as California's tough new academic standards and the restoration of phonics-based reading. As the analysts noted, "This 'one size' intervention does not fit all districts equally well. . . . Urban districts, in particular, have been put under considerable stress."

Almost every study of class-size reduction has found mixed results attained at a very high cost. The fact is that U.S. class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios have been declining for half a century with nothing to show in return by way of improved achievement. But smaller classes are undeniably popular with parents, nearly all of whom have the gut feeling that Ashley and Matt would fare better with fewer classmates to distract their teachers. Smaller classes are also very popular with teachers and teachers' unions because they mean less work for more teachers.

So Clinton is in political clover. Meanwhile, the congressional leadership has recently unveiled its "Straight A's" initiative (formerly known as "Super Ed Flex"). Straight A's will, if enacted, effect a historic shift in Washington's approach to K-12 education, replacing (for states that select this option) federal micromanagement of schools with federal insistence on stronger academic results. Although watered down in the drafting, it's an important proposal that enjoys the sponsorship of House committee chairman Bill Goodling and the support of House and Senate leaders. The unveiling of Straight A's was brilliantly staged. The sun was shining brightly, kids were cheering from inside a yellow school bus parked nearby, and the Capitol dome was gleaming in the background. Unfortunately, except for Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the Republican legislators announcing this momentous initiative came off looking ill prepared.

They neglected to point out that Straight A's is a profound rebuke to Clinton's hyper-regulatory approach and a fundamental alternative to 35 years of failed federal programs. They didn't stress the bill's shift from inputs to results. And they were quickly put on the defensive by press questions for which they were unprimed, especially queries about whether dollars would be taken from "high need" schools. (Answer: Under Straight A's, states and districts decide where and how to spend the money but the academic gains for which they're accountable must include their neediest kids.)

Even when they have a good education idea and a worthy proposal, congressional Republicans are rhetorically clumsy and palpably afraid they will again be charged with slash-and-burn, anti-kid policies. Which, on cue, is precisely what the White House accuses them of, directly, in pointed comments by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and education secretary Richard Riley, and indirectly, in tough questions planted with journalists who don't know much about education but are hungry for controversy. Ironically, Republicans have "increased the funding for education over the last three years far more than any Democrat ever did, and yet the Democrats continue to get the credit for it," as the National Education Association's top lobbyist recently said. Thank Clinton's demagoguery and GOP fecklessness.

Unless something changes fairly soon, the protectors of the status quo and their friends in the White House and Congress will continue to prevail. And Clinton and the program-a-day presidential candidate Gore will rack up another sizable win in the political sphere. This will be bad for kids, bad for school reform, and bad for American education.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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