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Reflections on Goals 2000

by Richard W. Riley - 1995

Goals 2000 defines the federal role as one of support and facilitation to improve all schools for all children while maintaining state and local control. The article discusses Goals 2000, looking at the beginning, the legislation, the national agenda, the state and local agenda, its passage into law, budgetary constraints, and the future. (Source: ERIC)

When the legislative dust settles and future historians examine the Clinton administration, they will devote a major chapter to the GOALS 2000: Educate America Act, which was signed into law on March 31, 1994. GOALS 2000 takes the 1990 National Education Goals—agreed to by the nation’s governors, with the leadership of then Governor Clinton of Arkansas and former President George Bush, expands them, and makes them the law of the land. It encourages the development of voluntary, world-class academic and occupational standards and asks states and school districts to set challenging academic standards. It provides financial support for states and communities working to improve their schools and to help their students meet their own high standards. Finally GOALS 2000 offers states and school districts a revolutionary management lever: broad authority from the U.S. Department of Education to waive burdensome federal regulations. GOALS 2000 accomplishes all of this without imposing a single new mandate on states and localities.

For the first time in the nation’s history, a statutory framework defines the federal role as one of support and facilitation to improve all schools for all children, while maintaining state and local control. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate of the United States approved that framework. Most of the nation’s state leaders endorsed it. It was backed by an impressive coalition of groups representing American education, business, and families. And it was signed into law by the president of the United States of America. These are some of the reasons Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called GOALS 2000 “the most important education legislation we’ve ever had.” This is the story of GOALS 2000.


Rarely has a new administration arrived in Washington more determined to act on education than was the Clinton administration—and not since the Johnson administration has the nation seen such legislative activity on education in the nation’s capital.

The country has never had a president better informed about education issues. As Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton had pushed through a major statewide reform measure in 1990—Act 236, which was a forerunner of GOALS 2000. In the National Governors’ Association, he championed comprehensive statewide reform and was a key leader in the effort to develop the National Education Goals. In announcing his platform to “put people first,” he made education a central part of his presidential campaign.

I was determined that GOALS 2000 would be the Clinton administration’s first enactment—preceding action on important school-to-work legislation and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Key members of Congress—particularly on the Democratic side—were frustrated after three years of wrangling about the goals and processes of school reform. They had tried to push the neighborhood schools legislation through Congress in the waning days of the Bush administration without much enthusiasm; it was simply an alternative to the Bush proposal. With a new Democratic administration in town, they were eager to get on with traditional Democratic education policy, such as amendments to Chapter 1 of ESEA and additional funding for it.

Some House Democrats initially were disconcerted by President Clinton’s recommendations as laid out in the GOALS 2000: Educate America Act. They saw the proposal to define goals, standards, and reform as substitutes for commitment, programs, and money. Others, primarily moderate Democrats and Republicans, liked what they saw. GOALS 2000 seemed to offer them a better, more balanced approach to educational improvement—one that promised to harness the energy of every level of government in pursuit of stronger schools and improved student learning.

It appeared to me at the time—and nothing has changed my mind since—that GOALS 2000 promised to be the much more effective and balanced strategy. Our approach was to create incentives and support to encourage state governments and local communities to work on their own plans to meet their challenging goals and high standards.

While pleased with the response of the moderate members of the House, we were also sympathetic to the concerns expressed by some Democrats. We, too, were eager to revamp Chapter 1, to take action on easing the transition from school to work, to enact the Safe Schools bill, and to add as much funding to these efforts as possible given the stringent budget ceilings under which we operated. However, we differed on one essential point: We wanted to do all of these things within a consistent framework defining the federal government’s role in public education, built on a shared understanding that quality schools must be a national priority but that education clearly remained a state responsibility and a local function.

Hence our first critical decision: We were determined that GOALS 2000 become the prism through which all our new legislation and amendments to every other program in elementary and secondary education would be considered.

Our second strategic consideration focused on the need to give the American people ownership of GOALS 2000. Here, I remembered my own experience in South Carolina. We had learned that neither government nor educators could reform the schools alone, or even together. The entire state had to get involved. Communities had to buy into reform; parents had to accept standards; and the business community had to support us. It was not good enough to bring parents, teachers, administrators, and business along—they themselves had to “own” reform. Toward that end, we assembled a broad coalition of business, education, parents, arts, and state and local groups to support the GOALS 2000 legislation. The groups worked together and individually to activate their colleagues back home to explain and support the legislation. They, members of my staff, and I made countless speeches and school visits around the country to describe the legislation and how it fit into local and state reform efforts.

We used focus groups to test the public’s understanding of major education issues, and they provided us with a consistent—and essential—commonsense reminder: The language of Washington often does not resonate with much of the American public. Most citizens share neither the vocabulary nor the dialogue of legislators or “policy wonks.” They have no interest in causes closest to analysts’ hearts—issues such as “systemic” reform or “alignment” of policy among different levels of government.

But the general public, deeply committed to education and the decent treatment of children, does respond immediately to appeals for safe and disciplined schools, high expectations and education standards, parent involvement, and better teaching. We found that in advancing GOALS 2000 we needed to be trilingual—speaking the language of analysts to the policy community, the language of legislative precision on Capitol Hill, and the language of learning and its possibilities with parents and local educators.


The easiest way to understand GOALS 2000 is to think of the statute in two parts, one oriented toward the national level, the other focused on state and local concerns. Almost all of the public discussion of GOALS 2000 has concentrated on the national level. Little attention has been given to the very important provisions laying out a structure of federal-state-local cooperation to improve learning for every child in every school.


The National Education Goals provided us with an important entry point to work with the states and local communities. Following extensive conversations with parents and leaders of the business and education communities, we decided that the third goal adopted in Charlottesville (student achievement in core academic subjects and citizenship) should have included the arts and foreign languages. With that change, strongly backed by President Clinton, we incorporated the Charlottesville goals into the legislation forwarded to Capitol Hill.

The House and Senate also improved the goals submitted by the White House. By the time the House and Senate were finished with the bill, the American people, through their Congress and their president, and with the support of a broad coalition of education, parent, and business groups, had adopted eight National Education Goals. The national Parent-Teacher was a vital supporter of the new goal on parental participation. Teacher groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, threw their weight behind a goal focusing on better teaching and improved professional development.

These goals are the heart of the national thrust in GOALS 2000, but other provisions include:

1. Affirming the importance and role of the National Education Goals Panel, a bipartisan group made up of governors, state legislators, members of the House and Senate, the Secretary of Education, and the domestic policy adviser to the president, to monitor and highlight progress toward the goals.

2. Creating the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) to certify standards as world class—standards being developed voluntarily, either by national professional associations or state and local groups.

3. Establishing the National Skills Standards Board to certify skills standards for entry-level workers in specific occupational fields such as health care or manufacturing. Like the NESIC standards, these standards are to be completely voluntary.



The state and local provisions are completely voluntary and built entirely around achieving each state and community’s own goals and standards. Every state is encouraged to develop challenging content standards of its own choosing (what students are supposed to know and be able to do) combined with performance standards (how well students must know the material). With the help of broad-based panels at the state and local levels, action plans will be developed to help students achieve these goals and meet the standards, as defined by each state and each community. Extensive outreach will take place to gain parent, educator, and public support in the improved efforts.

States and localities then are asked to align other policies of their education system around helping their students achieve these goals and standards. Computers and other technology should support teaching to the new standards. Curriculum should be aimed at the standards. Assessment and accountability should be oriented around them. Parents should be involved in their schools and in helping their children learn. Professional development for teachers and administrators should take the standards into account. At the state and local level, GOALS 2000 invites states to do what we did in South Carolina—to fit all of the pieces of the reform jigsaw puzzle together and focus on achieving high levels of performance.


Three debates shaped passage of GOALS 2000 in the House and Senate: (1) the role of the federal government in education; (2) opportunity-to-learn standards; and (3) the pressures of time imposed on us by budget considerations.


GOALS 2000 marked the beginning of a better, more balanced approach to school reform that said the federal government should neither control education—that is a state and local responsibility—nor ignore the pressing educational problems facing our children and schools. In the past, to deal with these competing positions, narrow categorical programs were created focused on specific problems. The accumulation of these narrow programs, each with separate rules, was beginning to affect negatively education overall. I was committed to a final bill that maintained education as a state and local responsibility but also reflected the need for educational improvement to become a national priority.

GOALS 2000 proposed the establishment of the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) to provide world-class models of academic standards to support interested states and localities in the process of developing their own standards. Although the establishment of this council had been recommended by a congressionally established bipartisan commission, concerns were raised about the role the new council would play and the power it would have. To address the concerns, the composition of the council was carefully negotiated to ensure that members of the public, parents, and businesspeople, as well as teachers and other educators, were part of the effort. In addition, specific language was added to clarify that certification of state standards was completely voluntary and would have no impact on other educational programs. States and communities that choose to participate in GOALS 2000 would have no obligation to submit their standards to NESIC if they chose not to.

The relationship of GOALS 2000 to other federal programs also raised concerns, as well as opportunities. We at the federal level were determined to reduce barriers to communities and states in coordinating federal education programs, including school-to-work and ESEA programs. We wanted to ensure that these programs did not duplicate work for states, as well as ensure that children and youth were properly served. Most importantly, GOALS 2000 had to remain voluntary, and its funding could not be tied to other federal programs. We were successful in achieving these objectives.

The Clinton administration inherited a major political dilemma pitting civil rights and education groups on the one hand, against conservative members of the House and Senate, business groups, and governors and legislators on the other. It was a debate that was to put President Clinton front and center on passage of GOALS 2000. At the center of the argument was a concept called “school delivery standards.”

Advocates of delivery standards complained that it was unfair to hold students to standards if the schools they attended were themselves substandard or their teachers poorly prepared. They argued that the delivery of educational services needed standards as well. Opponents, however, pointed to a different problem: the possibility that the federal government might be put in the position of making judgment s about the adequacy of school resources. Despite the fact that no state or district is required to participate in GOALS 2000 in any way, this concern deserved some attention.

Here President Clinton entered the picture. Governors and state legislators across the country passionately opposed the opportunity-to-learn provisions in the bill reported out of the House Committee on Education and Labor. They harbored severe reservations that these “input” requirements would bring about unfunded federal mandates imposed on the states. President Clinton signaled that he could not support the House Committee version and wanted these provisions changed before the legislation crossed his desk.

A final pressure worth noting was the issue of budgetary constraints. As GOALS 2000 moved through Congress, we were facing a tight legislative deadline. The “budgetary authority” for the legislation would expire on April 1, 1994. It turned out that if we were able to have GOALS 2000 signed into law before April 1, we could spend money to implement the program starting in July 1994. If we missed that deadline, even with the statute on the books, we could not begin to implement GOALS 2000 until July of 1995.

We went to work to get the bill through Congress. I met, as I had repeatedly, with both Democrats and Republicans, to stress not only the importance of the legislation to the president, but the critical need to meet the budgetary authority deadline. Our supporters kept working. Then a near-disaster happened. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) had added a school-prayer amendment that was later modified in conference. Unhappy with the result, Senator Helms began a filibuster to delay the conference report by demanding that every single word of the 231-page conference report be read on the Senate floor. It was a rare parliamentary maneuver, but a very effective threat to the budgetary authority deadline. Our challenge became keeping sixty senators on hand over the Easter/Passover weekend to vote for cloture and end the filibuster.

On that Friday I monitored the debate on the Senate floor from my office and spoke with numerous senators about the vote. My staff was on the phone with Senate offices to gather information about senators’ travel plans, as many already had scattered across the country for campaign events and family commitments. As the day wore on, we began to feel like air traffic controllers tracking the whereabouts of so many senators. It was clear that it would be difficult to get the votes to end the filibuster.

At ten o’clock Friday evening, we went over to the Capitol for a final meeting. Several members of my family and staff accompanied me. Everyone assured me that we had the votes to end the filibuster and pass GOALS 2000. Nevertheless, we nervously sat in the Senate gallery to await the votes. Midnight was the earliest that the vote to end the filibuster could take place. As the hour passed, senators straggled in. The clerk called the roll and we tried to keep a tally. Near 1:00 A M., the result of the vote to end the filibuster was announced. We had won by two votes. The Senate then went ahead to pass GOALS 2000, 63–22. We were elated. It had been a long road to a great, great victory.

The legislation was “enrolled” (formally signed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and president pro tempore of the Senate) and rushed to San Diego, where President Clinton took time out of his vacation to put his signature on it—a mere 24 hours before the department’s budgetary authority expired. Best of all, the president had the help of several hundred schoolchildren at the Zamorano Fine Arts Academy during the bill-signing ceremony.


As President Clinton said when signing the bill into law, “Today, we can say America is serious about education. America cares about the future of every child.”

It had been neither easy nor simple. We might have pushed something different through, but we were determined to be bipartisan and transcend business-as-usual in education policymaking. And we might have worked out the legislation behind closed doors with Congressional leaders, but we insisted on building a coalition of parents, educators, business leaders, and state and local policymakers—a coalition with a stake in the success of GOALS 2000 after it became the law of the land.

When I think of the potential benefits of the legislation, all of the effort was worthwhile. GOALS 2000 is nothing less than landmark legislation, as important in its own way as the Morrill Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. If the federal government does nothing else in education in the foreseeable future, GOALS 2000 is monumental simply because it encourages comprehensive, community-based reform aimed at creating safe, well-disciplined schools and high academic and occupational achievement and provides yardsticks against which states and localities can measure their progress. This statute offers the catalytic funding, partnerships, and flexibility needed to encourage local and state improvement efforts throughout the United States.

GOALS 2000 began to build bridges of trust. Congress and the administration moved with impressive speed and a sure grasp of substance. Introduced in April 1993, the legislation improved during the Congressional process and was signed into law eleven months later. This process proves that when Congress and the White House and their staffs work together, they can move very quickly.

Public support for movement was evident at the May White House event celebrating the passage of GOALS 2000. More than one thousand people from all over America arrived on very short notice, at their own expense, to participate. As President Clinton said that day, “I know the reason it has a good chance to work is because of you, and the thousands and thousands like you who have been out there working on these same issues that are finally codified into law . . . I ran for president not to pull this country to the right or the left, but to move it forward, to get people together . . . to face the problems, to deal with the issues.”

What united the Clinton team and members of Congress was the heartfelt conviction that citizens of the United States have been correct for two hundred years in believing that every child is entitled to a world-class education. That is the conviction that lies at the core of GOALS 2000.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 380-388
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 36, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:37:40 PM

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