Clinton urges national crusade to improve education

Washington (Reuter) - In a State of the Union speech setting his second-term goals, President Bill Clinton said last night that improving US education would become top priority, followed by "unfinished business" like campaign finance reform.

The televised address before the joint houses of Congress appeared to be a compilation of poll-tested themes from his 1996 re-election campaign and represented what a senior aide called a "concrete plan of action" for preparing America for the 21st century.

In pre-released excerpts from the speech, Mr Clinton appealed for a "national crusade" to raise education standards to a level competitive with other industrial nations.

"The greatest step of all - the high threshold to the future we now must cross - and my number one priority as president for the next four years - is to ensure that Americans have the best education in the world.

"We must begin a national crusade for education standards - not federal government standards, but national standards representing what all of our students must know to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."

Mr Clinton proposed $51bn (pounds 32bn) for education in the fiscal year, starting on 1 October, a 20 per cent increase over current spending, to pay for education, training and tax cuts tied to education. Under his education programme, spending would rise to nearly $60bn a year by 2002 as other pro- grammes are cut to balance the federal budget by that year.

Mr Clinton went into the annual ritual in the chamber of the House of Representatives enjoying some of the highest public approval ratings of his presidency in spite of a nagging controversy over how he and his Democratic Party had raised money for last year's campaigns.

The President's speech, expected to last about an hour, was thin on grand, large-scale initiatives, in line with the country's perceived mood towards less government intrusion. But he was clearly hoping to make education his ticket to the history books, in addition to two big items left over from his first term: balancing the budget by 2002 and carrying out a welfare reform law in a way that gets people jobs.

Mr Clinton's national education crusade involves a 10-point plan, top-ped by setting up a programme in the next two years for national achievement tests in reading and mathematics to make sure children master the basics.

The crusade would also ensure high quality standards for teachers and make schools safe, disciplined and drug-free.

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