The 1990s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1990s Education: Topics in the News



Perhaps more than any other educational issue in the 1990s, the subject of violence in schools made news. A rash of gun violence in seemingly safe suburban schools around the country indicated that violence was not just an urban problem. Although the high-profile cases involved suburban, white, middle-class students, the majority of children killed at school lived in lower income areas and were African American.

For the first time since the early 1970s, violence was seen as one of the major problems in schools. According to the annual Gallup poll taken on attitudes toward the public schools, violence topped the list of Americans' concerns in 1998. In a mad search for the solution, few educators and politicians could agree on the root of the problem, blaming movies, television, rap music, video games, parents, schools, and lack of religion.

For years, isolated incidents of shootings, stabbings, and other school violence saddened the country. Most Americans believed these random acts of violence occurred mainly in poor schools, sometimes the product of a single deranged individual Not until several similar mass shootings occurred around the country during the late 1990s did the country focus on the problem as a national concern. Americans all asked the same questions: How could such events happen? Was no one aware of the intentions of these shooters? How could they get their hands on these weapons of destruction? What was their motivation?

Many leading politicians pointed accusatory fingers at the film and music industries. They believed violent scenes in films and offensive lyrics in rap and rock music prompted young people to mimic such behavior. In response, executives in both industries claimed that violent messages in films or songs were not the problem, since millions of people saw such films and listened to such recordings without committing acts of violence. The problem, they believed, lay with the federal government, which had failed to pass gun-control laws and similar legislation.

In 1998, in the wake of numerous school shootings, President Bill Clinton (1946–) stated in one of his weekly radio addresses that youths' exposure to violence in movies, on television, and in video games warped their perceptions. He called on the U.S. Congress to pass a proposed juvenile crime bill that would ban young people convicted of violent offenses from purchasing guns for the rest of their lives. Gun-control advocates called for stricter restrictions on the sale and use of firearms. Opponents of such measures argued that new laws should focus on people who committed crimes with guns, not on the guns themselves.

As the debate between the two sides continued, the deadliest school shooting in American history took place. On April 20, 1999, gunfire erupted in a suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado, near Denver. Seniors Eric Harris, eighteen, and Dylan Klebold, seventeen, killed thirteen people and sent more than twenty others to hospitals with gunshot and shrapnel wounds before turning their weapons on themselves. Nationwide television broadcast images of students fleeing from the building with their hands above their heads. Not shown were wounded victims still inside the school.

U.S. High School Dropout Percentage: 1995

Total, all races12.0
Total, white8.6
Total, black12.1
Total, Hispanic30.0
Male, all races12.2
Male, white9.0
Male, black11.1
Male, Hispanic30.0
Female, all races11.7
Female, white8.2
Female, black12.9
Female, Hispanic30.0

Hundreds of police officers throughout the Denver area surrounded the school. Some students called their parents, the police, and television stations on cellular phones from inside the building. Nearby schools were locked and students were prohibited from entering or leaving the campus for hours. Law enforcement officers found dozens of explosives, including a twenty pound propane bomb, in the school and parking lot. For several days, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and police SWAT teams searched for and removed explosive devices that Harris and Klebold had hidden throughout the building.


As reports of violence and mediocre achievement scores plagued American schools in the 1990s, parents increasingly looked for other schooling options for their children. School-reform advocates, tired of fighting within the system, sought to develop alternatives to the public school system. Still others argued that the best way to hold the public schools accountable for performance was through consumer choice, giving parents the option of sending their children to the private school of their choice at taxpayer expense. Public debate on the options continued throughout the decade. Although fewer than one-half of the people in an annual Gallup Poll favored allowing students to choose a private school at public expense, the numbers who agreed with the idea grew during the 1990s, from 26 percent in 1991 to 44 percent in 1998.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, homeschooling became popular. Nearly 80 percent of those parents who chose to homeschool their children did so because they distrusted the public school system. Others did so because they wanted to be more involved in the education of their children. Homeschooled children numbered over one million by the late 1990s.

Strengths of homeschooling include the prolonged time spent as a family, a higher degree of meaningful interaction between parents and children, an ability to illustrate that education does not end when the bell rings or when vacation arrives, and a more individualized program of study.

Critics of homeschooling argued that children do not develop the normal social skills arising from interaction with fellow students. Parents of homeschooled children countered that a typical classroom does not resemble a normal social setting. They pointed out that many of the inter-actions in a classroom—bullying, elitism, teasing, conformism due to peer pressure—are not healthy.

Another alternative to public schools that arose in the 1990s was charter schools. These public institutions operate under a contract negotiated between the school's organizers (teachers or parents, for example) and a sponsor (such as a local school board, a state board of education, or a university) that oversees the provisions of the charter. The charter describes the school's instructional plan, specific educational outcomes, and its management and financial plan. Charter schools receive state funding, but are independent legal entities that have the ability to control

their own finances. Most charters are granted for a specified amount of time. If the schools fail to meet the conditions of their charters, they are closed.


In December 1996, the local school board in Oakland, California, unanimously decided that the district would recognize black English as a separate language as opposed to a dialect of English or a form of slang. As a distinct language, Ebonics (from the words ebony and phonics) could be used to teach students in their primary language with the aim of improving achievement for the city's African American children. Proponents of the plan asserted that Ebonics contained linguistic elements from African languages and that many African Americans had retained speaking patterns from their African roots. By allowing teachers to recognize the separate language, supporters argued, more effective teaching could take place.

Critics immediately condemned the move, saying it undercut the need to teach standard English to African American children. They accused the district of trying to access funds aimed at non-English-speaking students. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson urged the district to reverse its decision, arguing that black students who could not speak standard English would have difficulty finding jobs. A week after the school board announced its decision, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley confirmed that the Clinton administration would not accept the designation of Ebonics as a separate language.

The following month, the Oakland school board altered its plan in the wake of rising criticism that they had insulted the learning abilities of African American children. Although the issue of Ebonics disappeared from the national scene, the underlying problems the school board sought to address continued.

Minnesota enacted the first charter school law in 1991. By the end of 1998, over one thousand charter schools were operating in twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia; only thirty-two charter schools had failed. The demand for charter schools remained high: 70 percent of these schools reported a waiting list. Each year, more states passed charter school legislation, and several of them altered their laws to increase the numbers of charters that could be granted.

There were no typical charter schools. They operated differently depending on the state legislation under which the charter school was approved. The specific schools targeted diverse student populations and instituted vastly different educational philosophies. On average, charter schools enrolled far fewer students than public schools, although the student demographics were similar. Since they were small, charter schools often provided more individualized attention for their students.

Critics of charter schools argued that the schools drew attention and resources away from necessary reform efforts in public schools. They also pointed out that charter schools were one step away from public approval of vouchers for school choice.

Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994

  1. All children will start school ready to learn.
  2. The nation's high school graduation rate will increase to 90 percent.
  3. Students in grades 4, 8, and 12 will demonstrate competency in nine core academic areas.
  4. The United States will be first in international comparisons of math and science achievement.
  5. Adult literacy will be universal.
  6. Schools will be free of drugs and violence.
  7. Teachers will have access to continual professional-development opportunities.
  8. All schools will increase parental involvement in their children's education.

A 1996 amendment to the act had the following provisions:

  1. School districts in states that were not participating in Goals 2000 were allowed to apply for aid on their own if they had the approval of the state education agency.
  2. A requirement that states submit school-improvement plans to the U.S. Secretary of Education was removed. States were still to draft plans based on challenging standards and aligned assessments, but could get money by promising that it would be spent properly.
  3. Provisions specifying the membership of state and local panels charged with drafting the state and local plans were deleted.
  4. The National Education Standards and Improvement Council was formally eliminated.
  5. References to "opportunity to learn" standards for measuring school services, including a requirement that states create opportunity-to-learn "standards or strategies," were removed.
  6. No district, state, or school "shall be required…to provide outcomesbased education or school-based health clinics."
  7. The Goals 2000 law will not "require or permit any state or federal official to inspect a home, judge how parents raise their children, or remove children from their parents."

One of the initial ideas for school choice promoted issuing monetary vouchers (documents typically valued between $2,500 and $5,000) to parents of school-age children, usually in troubled inner-city school districts. Parents could then apply the vouchers toward the cost of tuition at private schools, including parochial or religious schools. Although successfully implemented in several states, vouchers continued to cause controversy throughout the nation.

Critics of vouchers argued against the use of public funds to support religious schools. These opponents also asserted that public schools could not improve if funds constantly were diverted away from the schools. In their strongest argument, the critics pointed out that vouchers would not necessarily equalize educational opportunities in America: Rich families would use the vouchers to help pay part of the tuition at the best schools; poor families could only use the vouchers, worth only a few thousand dollars, to help cover the costs at less desirable private schools.

During the decade, court battles abounded to abolish various controversial voucher systems across the nation. In June 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld that state's voucher program, which included religious schools. In April 1999, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that state-funded school vouchers could not be used to send children to religious schools. The battle over vouchers continued beyond the end of the 1990s.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Women in Military Schools

Shannon Faulkner wanted to attend the prestigious South Carolina military college, The Citadel. In 1993, she applied and was accepted to the all-male, 152-year-old institution—but she was female. Faulkner had deleted all gender references in her college application. When school officials discovered they had admitted a female applicant, they quickly withdrew their offer of enrollment.

Accepted on her qualifications, but denied entrance because of her gender, Faulkner sued the college, believing it was unconstitutional to discriminate against women by denying them a Citadel education. As one of two all-male, publicly funded military academies in the country, The Citadel braced for a long court battle. Armed with attorneys and the support of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Faulkner brought national attention to the issue.

Faulkner's efforts to enroll in the traditional academy were hotly debated by people across America. The nation's other all-male, state-funded military academy, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), also faced a court battle with the U.S. Justice Department. During the two-and-a-half-year legal proceedings, Faulkner, her family, and her lawyers faced many threats from angry opponents.

In January 1994, Faulkner became the first woman to attend day classes at The Citadel. However, she was not allowed to join the corps of cadets or participate in any military training. After a long legal battle, Faulkner finally won the right to become the first female cadet at The Citadel. On August 12, 1995, she began her career at the military academy. Less than a week later, having been unprepared for the physical rigors all cadets face upon entering, Faulkner dropped out.

In June 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that VMI must admit women or give up its state funding because its single-sex admission policy violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. The Citadel, in response, also yielded and changed its admission policy. Of the four female cadets who enrolled in The Citadel in the fall of 1996, two quit mid-year amid allegations of sexual harassment and safety issues (ten male cadets faced disciplinary action in connection with those incidents). In the spring of 1999, Nancy Mace became the first female graduate of The Citadel.


One educational battle that had arisen in previous decades continued unchecked well into the 1990s: the debate between the teaching of evolutionary theory and creationism in public schools. The modern theory of evolution, as proposed by English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), holds that present-day life on Earth evolved from previously existing life-forms through a process of gradual, continuous change over millions of years. Almost all scientists consider evolution one of the most fundamental and important general concepts in the biological sciences. Creationism is a theory about the origin of the universe and all life in it based on the account of creation given in the Old Testament of the Bible. Creationism holds that Earth is less than ten thousand years old, that its physical features such as mountains and oceans were created as a result of sudden calamities, and that all life on the planet was miraculously formed as it exists today by a divine creator. Because creationism is not based on any presently held scientific principles, members of the scientific community dismiss it as a possible theory of how the universe was created.

In 1981, lawmakers in Louisiana had passed legislation requiring that both evolutionary theory and creationism be taught equally in public schools. In 1987, and repeatedly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such a requirement was invalid because creationism was a statement of theology, not biology. This setback did not stop determined members of school boards across the country from trying to sidestep the ruling. They continued to try to delete evolution from the curriculum or to make sure that it was countered by presenting creationism as an alternative.

Technology in the Classroom

The growth of technology during the 1990s affected schools around the country. Computer technology, once a luxury, became a necessary addition to every school in the nation. As the decade progressed, so did expectations of students, parents, and employers about each school's ability to teach students the necessary skills to function in an increasingly technical world.

Teachers comfortable with computer technology praised the Internet. Online discussions with students in foreign countries, publishing opportunities for students, and access to government information led teachers to encourage students to explore cyberspace. Consequently, the Internet became a favored educational tool across the country. Between 1994 and 1998, Internet access in public schools increased from 35 percent to 89 percent, and the percentage of classrooms with access went up from 3 percent to 51 percent.

Recognizing that schools with severely limited resources would lag even further behind, President Bill Clinton took steps to help these schools provide Internet access to their students. In 1996, as part of the Telecommunications Act, the Universal Service program was born. Commonly known as the "E-rate," the program structured a series of discounts from telecom providers for schools and libraries to help defray the cost of telecommunications and Internet technologies. The details of the program were left to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which inaugurated the program in May 1997.

The program received over 62,000 applications in its first two years of operation, making it clear that schools and libraries saw a great need for increasingly their accessibility to the Internet. Originally slated to have a budget of $2.25 billion per year, the FCC cut the program's funding for the first year to only $1.2 billion, thereby significantly reducing the number and amount of grants available to schools.

In August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education adopted new standards for the teaching of science, which effectively removed any discussion of evolution as an explanation for human origins. The decision was widely praised by religious conservatives. Scholars, science educators, and those who believed in the constitutional separation of church and state were appalled.

Although the decision surprised and outraged many scientists, politicians, journalists, and parents, national polls suggested that 68 percent of Americans wanted creationism taught in conjunction with evolution as equally viable theories about the origins and development of life on Earth. As many as 40 percent of respondents favored teaching creationism instead of evolution. Of those polled, only 7 percent thought that no Supreme Being played a role in either the creation or evolution of life on the planet.

Not long before the school board in Kansas took action, similar quarrels had erupted in California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington. The state textbook committees in Alabama and Oklahoma had already inserted disclaimers into science books stating that evolution was an unproven theory that students were by no means obliged to accept as fact. The attorney general of Oklahoma subsequently ordered the disclaimer removed. The Kansas State Board of Education decision thus only intensified an ongoing dispute.


Affirmative action, in which preferential treatment is given to women and minorities to compensate for previous discrimination in employment and college admissions, suffered a major setback in the 1990s. In November 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, making the state the first in the nation to ban state-sponsored affirmative action programs. When opponents of the proposition took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court refused to hear the case.

Also in 1996, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana struck down an affirmative action admissions policy at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. That decision effectively banned preferential admissions based on race at state-run schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—the three states under the jurisdiction of the appeals court.

Those in favor of affirmative action pointed to enrollment figures at schools affected by Proposition 209 as justification for the need of affirmative action programs. The law school at the University of California, Los Angeles reported that only twenty-one African American students had been admitted for the 1997–1998 school year—the lowest total in nearly thirty years and down 80 percent from the previous year. The law school at the university's Berkeley campus had admitted only fourteen African American students for the coming school year, down from seventy-five the previous year. Both law schools said that similar drops in admissions had occurred among Hispanic applicants.

The debate over affirmative action was not limited to California but raged on across the country. While voters in California debated Proposition 209, twenty-six states drafted similar initiatives. In 1998, 58 percent of the voters in Washington state approved Initiative 200, banning state and local agencies from granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender when admitting students to state schools, hiring for state jobs, or awarding state contracts.

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The 1990s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1990s Education: Topics in the News