Impeachment and Kosovo are behind us, and now we can get back to the important issues of “Social Security, affordable health care, welfare reform, the environment, and education.” President Clinton can get back to “running the country,” presumably for “the sake of the children,” so that “at the end of the day,” we can “prepare for the 21st century.”

Whew! Most Americans seem to have survived the “constitutional crisis” and the “trauma of impeachment” with, it would seem, nothing much damaged except our language.

So what comes next? That is almost too easy to guess. The item that Clinton seems most excited to tackle is education. His solution to that “problem” is a marvel of simplicity: 100,000 new teachers.

In fact, Clinton seems obsessed with the number 100,000. He wants 100,000 new cops on the beat, and he wants to issue 100,000 vouchers for new housing, whatever that means.

Just think of that number. If Larry King really did interview 30,000 guests in 30 years, it would take him another 70 to reach 100,000 interviews. The equatorial circumference of the Earth is only 25,000 miles, so that is four new teachers for every mile of the equator. If the average height of the new teachers were five-foot-nine, their height stacked head to feet would be about 110 miles, or over 396 times as tall as the Sears Tower. As Jerry Lewis says on his annual telethon, “That’s some kinda number!”—as if numbers, in and of themselves, have an intrinsic meaning.

In reality, however, what would be the effect on American education of 100,000 new teachers? Indeed, what is the stated purpose of such an addition to our force of public pedants?

The best place to begin is, of course, with some facts. Reliable current statistics regarding education are difficult to obtain because corrections to reported data continue long after the initial counts. A reasonable, conservative extrapolation from data in The World Almanac indicates that, in school year 1999-2000, there will be in our public elementary and secondary schools approximately 47.7 million students presided over by some 2.8 million teachers, for a national average student-teacher ratio of 17 to one. An additional 100,000 teachers would only lower that ratio to 16.4 to one, which might not sound like a bad thing to do, except for the heavy price to be paid by local districts because of more federal control over schools.

But now comes a twist in Clinton’s numerology: He also wants to lower the student-teacher ratio to no more than 15 to one “in the early grades.” Taking this to mean kindergarten to eighth grade, where there will be some 34.1 million students in 1999-2000, if the student-teacher ratio were to be a classroom maximum of 15 to one, then the overall ratio would certainly have to be a good bit less than that. But even at the impossible average of 15 to one, these 34.1 million students would require 2,273,000 teachers. This would be more than 78 percent of all teachers, both elementary and secondary. If the proposed 100,000 new teachers were all assigned to the lower grades, this would leave only 527,000 teachers for the 13.6 million students in grades nine through 12. For them, the student-teacher ratio would soar to almost 26 to one, thus crippling the personal attention that might help lessen the alarming high-school dropout rates.

People in general, and politicians in particular, are overly impressed with numbers, and in education, most everyone seems to agree that more teachers and more money will solve perceived problems. But three examples seem to indicate otherwise.

First, do lower student-teacher ratios automatically increase educational achievement? It would be difficult to claim this on the basis of statistics. For example, that ratio in Texas in 1996 was 15.5 to one, much lower than the national average, but the graduation rate in Texas was only 58.4 percent (43rd in the nation) and SAT scores were below the national average. By contrast, the student-teacher ratio in Utah that same year was a high 24.4 to one, the graduation rate was 78.4 percent (12th highest nationally), and SAT scores were much higher than the national average.

Second, does teacher pay correlate with student achievement? Again, it is difficult to argue that it does. The average teacher’s salary in California in 1996 was $43,725. The state ranked 37th in its graduation rate and had SAT scores that were nothing to brag about. Meanwhile, the average teacher’s salary in Utah was only 75 percent of his counterpart’s in California.

Finally, can the federal government be expected to provide any leadership whatsoever in the field of education? The most devastating answer to this is presented by the District of Columbia, which, according to the Constitution, is under the control of Congress. In D.C., teacher salaries averaged $46,350 in 1996 (sixth highest nationally), the student-teacher ratio was 14.9 to one (much lower than average) and the expenditure per pupil was the second highest in the nation. Yet SAT scores in D.C. were second from the bottom, and the graduation rate was only 53.2 percent, the lowest in the nation.

Along with the 100,000 teachers, Clinton’s education proposal calls for building 5,000 schools. Quite aside from all of the figures offered above, if the 100,000 new teachers were assigned to those schools, each would have but 20 teachers, hardly enough for a country school in a small county.

It boggles the mind to consider the wild applause offered by the audience at the State of the Union Address when nothing but numerological glossolalia was mentioned in regard to education. A much better proposal would be for the federal government to turn its attention to the D.C. public schools and make them a model of educational excellence that the rest of the nation could strive to imitate with local dollars and local management.

One question that hasn’t been raised is how the nation could produce and certify 100,000 new teachers in short order. One suggestion would be to decrease, or better yet eliminate, the need for local compliance officials, who could teach but instead spend their valuable time filing reports with the Department of Education. And, of course, the elimination of the Department of Education itself would release a huge number of certified teachers.

With NATO’s recent “victory,” everyone should hope that President Clinton will not try to impose some variation on his favorite number on the people of Kosovo.