Education Debate

May 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The pace has been slow and deliberate these past three weeks as the Senate debated reforms to elementary and secondary education. At issue is the President’s plan to overhaul the nation’s school system. The President’s reform package proposes to test children annually in grades three through eight in reading and math; give school districts more control over how they use federal funds; allow parents to spend federal funds on tutoring services for their youngsters, and although private school vouchers have been removed from the plan, it would still give parents the right to transfer their children out of a failing public school into a better performing public school.

SPOKESMAN: The clerk will read the amendment.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Despite increases in spending called for in the President’s education plan, Democrats have complained it’s not enough. So throughout the debate they’ve pushed amendments to add more money, with the help of a handful of Republicans.

SPOKESMAN: The Senator from Iowa.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel added $181 billion over ten years to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as required by law.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: This amendment fulfills a commitment Congress made but has never kept. It increases funding for education.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The majority of the spending increases have come from Democrats, such as Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, whose amendment would add $30 billion over seven years to provide mentors for teachers and Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln, whose amendment would fund bilingual education programs by $12 billion over seven years.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN: If we are going to ask these students to master English and meet the same challenging state content and student performance standards, then we need to provide state and local school districts with the resources they need to meet this new challenge.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In all, the Senators approved over $200 billion of new spending above the President’s request since the start of the education debate. Some conservatives are angry with the White House but caving into the Democrats on increased education spending. Missouri Republican Christopher Bond said the extra money won’t do much to include schools nationwide.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND: For too long many of my colleagues here who supported just throwing more and more money at education and the Washington-based education establishment generally, have determined our success in education programs based on the dollars spent, not on the academic achievements; not on the progress, not on what our children are learning in schools to be better prepared.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And yesterday, all 50 Republicans voted to defeat a five-year, $7 billion Democratic proposal to continue a Clinton administration initiative to hire 100,000 new public school teachers to reduce overcrowded classrooms. The Senate hopes to wrap up debate on the education bill before the Memorial Day recess.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us from Capitol Hill are two key players in the Senate debate, both members of the Education Committee: Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Good evening, gentlemen.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Good evening.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Good evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Frist, if the legislation is adopted, in the essentially the form it’s in now– and I know you’re still in the process– how will it change public education in this country? How significant a difference will it make?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, you know, this particular bill, since 1965 we’ve been reauthorized, what we call rewriting it, seven times. And this is the next time. And it’s our hope, and it’s been a bipartisan goal, is that this bill, by engaging in reform, and yes, more spending, we’ll achieve reducing the achievement gap, which is defined in the campaigns… Presidential campaigns, which we all know have gotten worse over time, and boost achievement for all students advantaged and disadvantaged alike. And that’s what we are very hopeful about, again in a bipartisan way, that we can accomplish that. There are differences on how we accomplish that, but that’s thee general goal. And that’s what we can accomplish, I believe, through this legislation.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kennedy, how would you assess the potential impact of this bill?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, first of all, I think we have A… As Senator Frist mentioned, a good blueprint. But we’re only reaching about a third of the children that need the kind of help and assistance and the supplementary services, the well-trained teachers that are being provided in this legislation and that is why, over the period of the last two to three weeks, we have been trying to give focus and emphasis on the fact that we need the additional resources to be able to really reach the children in this country that need it. We’re talking about the future of our nation when we’re talking about children. We’re talking about the strength of our country when we’re talking about children. And I think we’ve got a good blueprint. But tomorrow, we’re going to consider a trillion, 250 billion dollar tax break that still will go very much to the wealthiest individuals. And what we are talking about, as even you described, adding $200 billion more over a ten- year period, I think most of us, on our side, would like to say, let’s make that a trillion, maybe $100 billion and use the rest of it in order to really fully fund… make sure that we have well-trained teachers in every classroom, to make sure that we have the smaller class sizes, particularly in the early grades; that we’re going to try and deal with after-school programs that can make a difference to make sure that our schools are going to be safe and secure. I think we have got good agreement on the basics, but we are still apart in terms of the funding levels.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Frist, a great many Republicans have voted against a lot of these additional spending measures that have come on the floor– though today you a big bipartisan majority for a couple of them. Why is the Republican leadership against most of these?

SEN. BILL FRIST: You know, clearly the Republicans are not against increased spending. We are going to support the President’s initiative of putting more money in education at one time than any President has put in history, in terms of education. You don’t hear us stressing money and dollars and billions and authorizations and appropriations as much as the other side because we really do focus on reform, on recognition that after 35 years we spent $120 billion and we don’t have a lot to show from it in terms of progress. The achievement gap, the difference between the disadvantaged children, in terms of academic performance, and advantaged children is getting worse over time. So you’ll also hear us talk more about reform, recognizing that what we have done in the past hasn’t been sufficient in terms of boosting student achievement, that our international counterparts are far excelling, going beyond us. So you’ll hear us talk about reform, accountability, local control, involving parents, preparing teachers, giving them the tools that they need to be able to make that teaching component of the classroom an important one, one that works. So you’ll hear us talking about reform, accountability, local control rather than just dollars and cents.

MARGARET WARNER: And I want to talk a little more about accountability, but let me first try to get you to answer, though, this question about that money, since Senator Kennedy raised it. Are you saying you’re comfortable with these additional measures? Of course, the White House issued a statement this week saying they didn’t like them. Where are you on this?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I’ll tell you. You’re exactly right. In the opening piece you pointed out that hundreds of millions and then now billions of dollars are being passed in terms of this bill, and I think we have to be very careful. I think in terms of the process of how much money is necessary, it really depends on how much reform. We’re going to clearly spend more money and put more money in education than we have at any time in history. The President of the United States is committed to that. But we will continue to argue that money is not the answer. The answer is in doing better for our children, in boosting student achievement, eliminating… reducing that achievement gap, and that’s going to require doing something different from the past, and that’s reform.



SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: …Make a brief… money doesn’t… is not necessarily the answer for all the problems, but it’s a pretty clear indication of a nation’s priorities. We’ve got to the reforms now. Part of problem the Democrats have is in this reconciliation, the tax bill that we are having on the floor of the United States Senate, which is going to basically indicate what we’re going to spend over the next ten years — there isn’t a single new dollar in there for education for the out years. There is allocations of funding for taxes, but not for new money in terms of investing in education. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s wrong. And the increases that the President had to for this year, basically as a result for cutting back– for example, $500 million in the job training, $200 million that have been taken out of the National Science Foundation, $30 million out of pediatric education for training pediatricians. If we’re going to make education the most important issue for this country, and I think that’s the feeling for parents, we have to have the reforms. We have to be able to have the accountability. We have to have responsibility at the local levels. We have to have a sense of expectation from these children. We have to give them the support services. But you cannot do it on the cheat. You can’t do it with a tin cup budget. It is going to cost to invest in children. They are our future, and that is a major difference in this debate at this time. And we’re very hopeful that the President finally will join us in this, because I think it’s of such overwhelming importance, and I think he’ll hear from the American people in support of these reforms and supporting the funding for them.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Frist, let me go back now to accountability and testing, because there has been criticism, actually from members of your party, conservatives, that some of this has been watered down. That for instance, schools… how they define a school as having performed adequately has been watered down or that there’s not going to be any kind of national test required or national standard; every state can choose whatever test they want at every grade. How do you respond to that? I know you and the Senator… Senator Kennedy are probably in agreement of this, but there are some critics.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, it is critical. When we talk about flexibility and local control and eliminating bureaucracy and consolidation of programs, we need to have some sort of measure as to whether or not that works. And again, "works" to me doesn’t mean dollars and cents, it means really boosting student achievement. That every child is advancing year to year with whatever resources we put into investing in that child’s education. So you have to measure it. In general agreement today, and that’s where the testing that President Bush proposed, daily… or yearly testing from the third through the eighth grade is important. That’s the only way we’re going to know whether or not, whatever we do in terms of reforms or however much money we spend is really working. Most Republicans don’t want a federal test, don’t want a national test written here in Washington, D.C. I’m certainly not for that– so there is a fear. We don’t want the test designed nationally. We want them to actually be designed… but you have to have… at the state level of level or beneath that, but you do have to have a standard so that you can compare one state to another. I believe that in the bill, through a lot of negotiations, a lot of study, again in bipartisan way and working in the administration, that we have achieved good measures for assessment year to year to know and to determine whether or not we are making success or whether a child is falling behind. "Leave no child behind," means that we do have to assess on a yearly basis.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kennedy, are you satisfied that the accountability provisions are really firm and clear enough?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Yes, I am. But let me add one point to this, and that is, the types of testing that we’re going to use. Tests, in and of themselves, are not reforms. Tests do not provide a qualified teacher or a mentor in the classroom or help children to learn with bilingual help and assistance, or have a smaller class size or have an after-school program. Tests don’t do that. What we need to make sure is that the tests, which are included in here, are going to be thoughtful tests, not off-the- shelf tests that can be taught, too, but those kinds of tests that are going to clearly reflect the ability of a child to think through a process and a problem. And then we should look at tests, not as a punishment, but as a way of attempting to try and understand what the child knows and what the child does not know, and then to be able to develop almost individualized curriculums to help that child in that classroom try and upgrade their performance and make progress in their particular grade at the grade level. That is the way we see it. That is what I would hope. And I think that, quite frankly, that’s the way the President sees it. We have to make sure that this legislation that we have will go in that direction and move in that direction and not be just a test that is going to be off- the-shelf taught to by teachers and create a false sense of learning in the school system. So that is a very important provision and I’m hopeful we can get it right. We’re working on it. I think we do. And we need to make sure that we do in the conference with the House.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well Senators, both, thank you so much.