President Clinton tried Friday to revive interest in his besieged education agenda, citing new studies indicating that smaller classrooms not only make students smarter but safer.
Clinton released government reports addressing the effects of classroom size and the proliferation of guns at school and suggested that fewer children might pack pistols if their teachers got to know them better.
"Children in some classes in America are in classes that are so big . . . where the students are barely known by name to the teacher, much less the particular circumstances of their lives," Clinton said in an address to a joint session of the Delaware General Assembly.
The White House sent legislation to Congress Friday calling for the hiring of 100,000 more teachers in the nation as a way to reduce class sizes, particularly in grades one to three. Clinton's objective is a national average of 18 students per class.
But the Republican-controlled Senate already has voted down Clinton's teacher proposal, which would cost $12.4 billion over seven years. The Senate also rejected a separate White House initiative to spend $3 billion renovating school facilities.
GOP lawmakers are proposing an alternative approach that stresses vouchers for private school tuition, block grants to the states and tax-free savings accounts to pay for education costs.
In his Delaware talk, Clinton said it is time to launch "a national crusade to give our children the best education."
A new Education Department study he cited concludes that smaller class sizes in the early grades boost student performances throughout their educational careers, with pupils in poor areas showing the biggest gains.
Students also cause fewer disciplinary problems if they have more elbow room, the report notes.
"The significant effects of class size reduction on student achievement appear when class size is reduced to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students and continue to increase as class size approaches the situation of a one-to-one tutorial," the report states.
California has adopted 20 students per teacher as its goal for grades one, two and three, offering financial incentives to districts that achieve the target ratio.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has neared that benchmark. But administrators say that they suffer from too little classroom space, with some schools forced to cram as many as 40 children into one classroom along with two teachers to meet the goal.
The Education Department cited the California effort as "an important initiative whose implementation may provide instructive lessons." But the department also it noted that almost a quarter of the 18,000 teachers hired in 1996 lacked teaching credentials.
The White House plan would send money to the states for more teacher training, recruitment and testing and would require teachers to pass state competency tests.
Addressing the growing problem of guns in schools, the Education Department said that all 50 states have adopted mandatory expulsions for violators. During the 1996-97 school year, there were 6,093 such expulsions, with California, Ohio and Texas each reporting more than 500 such disciplinary actions.
In those states where the type of firearm is reported, 58% of weapons carried onto schoolyards were handguns, while 7% were rifles and shotguns and the remaining 35% included such weapons as bombs and grenades.
"We want to do more to ensure our children's safety," Clinton said. "We want to make sure our children are exposed to teachers and team leaders, not drug dealers and gang leaders."