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WE HAVE MANY MILES TO go before reaching our ambitious National Education Goals. But Americans may be surprised to learn that, in some crucial areas, our schools are actually improving. Dating back to the 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," states and school districts have engaged in the most sustained school improvement effort in U.S. history:

The proportion of high school graduates who have taken the core courses recommended in "A Nation at Risk" (four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of science, three years of math) increased from 14 percent in 1982 to 52 percent in 1994.Between 1978 and 1992, performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics improved for all three age groups tested, with the largest gains made by 9- and 13-year-olds. The improvement was equivalent to at least one grade level. Likewise, NAEP science performance rose from 1982 to 1992 in all three age groups.

In the latest international assessment of reading, American fourth-graders outperformed students from all other participating nations except Finland.

The combined verbal and math scores on the SAT increased 17 points from 1982 to 1995, while at the same time the numbers and diversity of test-takers increased.

Today, because of their better educations, 57 percent of youths with disabilities are competitively employed within five years of leaving school, compared to only 33 percent of older people with dis-a-bil-i-ties.

Despite these successes, everyone agrees we need to accelerate progress dramatically; a world-class education is more important than ever before in today's competitive, high-tech economy.

That's why the Clinton administration has worked hard to help raise standards, make schools safer, get parents more involved, support good teachers, and better integrate technology into the classroom.

But one proposed "solution" would put our nation's progress in real jeopardy: quick-fix voucher schemes that use taxpayer funds to pay for private elementary and secondary school tuition.

The Clinton administration has strongly supported increasing competition and options for parents within public education.

Voucher controversies polarize communities and distract them from working together on common-sense reforms to improve our public schools.

Vouchers siphon taxpayer dollars from the public schools that serve the vast majority of America's schoolchildren, diverting them instead to private schools that can pick and choose whom to admit.

Private schools are an important part of our national heritage, serving the same percentage of schoolchildren (just over 11 percent) in 1994 as they did in 1889. However, if public funds are used to support the basic costs of such schools, increased calls for private schools to become regulated and accountable to public officials will fundamentally alter the nature of private schooling.

The Clinton administration has made a commitment to supporting state and local efforts to strengthen all schools; this has won the president overwhelming support among educators. And it is consensus education improvements, such as higher expectations, greater accountability, and more choice within public schools - not divisive voucher schemes - that can help secure the future for our children.