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Keep the feds out of schools

Beware of simplistic, feel-good solutions, especially ones that bring the federal government into areas where it doesn't belong.

On the face of it, no one can argue with President Clinton's goal of reducing class sizes in grades 1, 2 and 3 from a national average of 22 students to 18. Fewer students means more individual attention from a teacher and, in the eyes of many, a better chance for learning.Well, that's the conventional wisdom, anyway.

The fact is class sizes have been dropping steadily nationwide since the 1950s, and yet test scores haven't improved. Quite the opposite, actually. Meanwhile, more than 1,100 studies have been conducted on the subject of class sizes and learning. They offer no conclusive proof of a correlation.

In Utah, where large classes always are an issue, teachers have consistently demonstrated that test scores still can be fairly high despite large student-teacher ratios. The reason is simple. Class size alone isn't the answer. A variety of factors contributes to making a student successful. Some of them don't even have any direct relation to schools.

President Clinton's $12 billion federal effort aimed at reducing class sizes and hiring 100,000 new teachers is, then, an effort that might not succeed in improving schools, even if it were approved by Congress. But it would be more than just a harmless waste of money. It would allow Washington to stick a giant paw where it doesn't belong - in local school districts.

Clinton wants to spend another $19.4 billion on an interest-free bond program to help build or remodel 5,000 new schools. We have no doubt that many inner-city schools could benefit from the money, particularly in the nation's largest urban areas. But school districts, and particularly the tax payers who support them, should not begin looking toward the federal government for solutions.

Schools are inherently local concerns. Of all government responsibilities, the educating of children is one with which adults ought to be actively involved, and no one understands better how to improve a local school district than local residents and leaders.

Gov. Mike Leavitt is proposing a charter school plan to help add innovation and local ideas to the learning process. Other states have had great success with such a plan, as well as with voucher programs for private schools. These local initiatives provide answers to the decline in educational excellence.

The last thing schools need is for a meddlesome federal government to begin prescribing its own brand of answers from thousands of miles away.