August 30, 2000
Imagine you're a new first-grade teacher in a large urban school district. Eagerly you arrive at school on the first day, only to find a classroom bursting with 35 antsy 6 year olds. It's late August, and despite the best efforts of a creaky old fan, the temperature in your classroom hovers at well over 90 degrees. After listening to your concerns, one of the older teachers warns that conditions will be worse in the dead of winter when the boiler doesn't work and old windows allow frigid air to pour in.
Over the past 30 years, I've visited thousands of schools around the country, and I've come to recognize the quality of the education they offer the minute I walk through the front door. Many of our nation's schools are showcases. There's a palpable energy among both teachers, who are highly-trained and well-paid, and students, who enjoy learning in buildings that boast spanking clean hallways, small classes, access to the latest technology and extra help for children with learning difficulties so that they can meet the same high standards as their classmates.
But I've also walked into too many schools, like the one I describe above, where the energy is missing - - sapped by a lack of resources, old and rundown buildings, an absence of equipment and supplies, and teachers who don't get the support they need to help their charges prepare for 21st century jobs in a global economy.
Although education is a local responsibility, the Republican Congress has apparently lost sight of the fact that it must also be a national priority. Before they adjourned for the August recess, both the House and the Senate passed appropriations bills funding the Department of Education. Unfortunately, these bills fail to meet some of our children's most critical education needs.
A record 53 million children will enter public and private schools this year, with slightly more than a third scheduled to attend class in a portable classroom. Many of us have suspected for years that children can't do their best in this type of situation. A new Rand study, as well as the recently-released results of years of research in Tennessee, confirm that our concerns are well-founded: Class size matters. Inexplicably, neither the House nor the Senate bill would guarantee funding for the final installment of the President's initiative to hire 100,000 new teachers, reducing class size in the primary grades to 18. Without this funding, as many as 2.9 million children could be stuck in overcrowded classrooms.
Compounding the problem of overcrowding, the latest information from the National Center for Education Statistics reports that three-quarters of our public schools need repair, renovation or modernization. Yet, although we send millions of our children off to these schools every day, neither the House nor the Senate would provide dedicated funding for the President's plan to repair aging and neglected schools. Too often I find myself asking, "What is the message we are sending our children when we send them off each day to school buildings where the roofs leak, the boilers don't work and the windows are broken?"
Another Rand study, this one conducted in North Carolina, shows that when schools are held to high standards, student achievement improves, and the gap between African-American and white students is reduced. Once again, though, neither of the two bills would fund the programs designed to help local authorities turn around low-performing schools and make sure that no student is trapped in a failing institution.
Recent research also tells us that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in improving student achievement. Flying once more in the face of concrete information, the Republican plans fail to fund teacher quality initiatives, including a program that would help recruit teachers to high-need communities and provide professional training so that they can meet higher standards.
Other proposals that would be severely curtailed or eliminated by this Congress include: GEAR UP -- early intervention and college preparation services designed to reach almost 1.5 million disadvantaged youth; after-school and summer school activities for over 2 million children; and programs that would help make schools safe and drug-free, put computers and other modern technologies in every school, improve the success of Hispanic-American students, encourage mid-career professionals to become teachers, help students become successful readers, and support innovative public school choice plans.
Here we are in the midst of the longest economic growth in our country's history -- a moment when the combination of a robust economy with the accompanying budget surplus has handed us what some might call a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now is the time to invest in our future. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is no excuse for teachers, new or otherwise, to work in classrooms that are ill-suited to great teaching or great learning.
When the members of Congress return to Capitol Hill next week, partisan posturing must cease. It's time for the 535 members of Congress to roll up their sleeves, work together, and make our children's future their number one priority.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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