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The Education Debate

September 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez leads a discussion with four experts on the major presidential candidates' education proposals.

RAY SUAREZ: And to debate the merits of the candidates’ education proposals, we’re joined by two education policy advisers to both campaigns and two interested outsiders. The Gore campaign’s Jonathan Schnur is founder of New Leaders for New Schools. He served as President Clinton’s K-12 education policy adviser. And the Bush campaign’s Nina Rees is here. She is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

For outside perspective we have Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a nonprofit education organization; and Jeanne Allen, director at the Center for Education Reform.

Nina Rees, for those voters telling public opinion researchers that education is a big issue for them, what does Governor Bush have to offer?

Bush’s education record

NINA REES: He has a lot to offer. In fact, his own record in the state of Texas is a record full of positive improvements in the academic achievement, of not just all Texas students, but also the academic achievement of low-income children, especially minority children.

In fact, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is the best gauge of student performance around the country, Texas fourth graders, African-American Texas fourth graders come in first in mathematics. African-American eighth graders come in first in writing. So there’s something going on in Texas that people like Amy Wilkins have alluded to as the Texas miracle.

And I think it’s important to look at the experience of Governor Bush in terms of what he will do at the national level. Now, let me just do a quick contrast with Vice President Gore. Vice President Gore doesn’t really have a record on education the way Governor Bush has. And a lot of the proposals he’s put on the table seem nice… seem like nice proposals on the surface, but it’s a lot of programs, a lot of money, and at a time when we know for a fact that just additional funding alone is not going to solve the problems of our schools – a lot of people should be concerned that he’s simply promising a lot of the same reforms that we’ve seen so far.

If you believe that we need some fundamental reforms in our educational system and that the fact that 70 percent of our fourth graders are unable to read, and that’s a national tragedy, then I think Governor Bush has the better plan.

But if you believe that we’re on the right track and that the academic achievement of our students will simply be solved by adding a few more programs and a little bit more funding here and there, then Vice President Al Gore is the candidate for you.

Merits of the Gore plan

RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Schnur, what does the Gore program have to offer for those people who are saying education’s a big issue for them in the fall?

JONATHAN SCHNUR: Well, thank you for having me on the show. I think the question is: What is the contrast between the two education plans? There’s a very different approach between the Gore plan and the Bush education plan.

Al Gore has a comprehensive plan to boost the improvement of our public schools, the public schools that serve 90 percent of America’s children. The plan insists on high standards and accountability, with real consequences for success and failure and then sets aside a significant portion of the budget surplus to make investments to help all kids, teachers and schools get the extra help they need to succeed.

It insists on high standards for states with real consequences for states that succeed and fail, and much more than Governor Bush’s plan, it actually sets standards for schools and then demands real change in the public schools that aren’t performing where most kids would continue to go.

Governor Bush’s plan has a low-performing school go for three years without additional investments, without additional change. And at the end of the three years, some parents could use a voucher to go to another school, but never demands change in the school where most kids will continue to attend.

Al Gore insists on change and accountability in the school. He invests in improving reforms in low-performing schools, like class size, like taking proven before models like Success for All to help improve achievement. And if after one year the school hasn’t improved, he then has plans to ensure that teachers get professional development they need and low-performing teachers get quick improvement or removed in a fast but fair way.

Two years after no significant improvement, the school is shut down and reopened with an outstanding new principal with a track record and experienced teachers to come help to turn the school around. It’s a real plan that insists on immediate action to turn around the low-performing schools which so many of our kids attend and need to get a better education to improve. He also invests in universal preschools – has every child get the right start and smaller classes.

He has got a comprehensive plan to boost teacher quality, insisting on testing for all new teachers, as well as recruiting one million outstanding new teachers, especially for the schools that need them the most in shorted subject areas like math and science. And he would raise teacher pay in exchange for higher teacher standards and focus particularly on the high-poverty schools that have had such a difficult time of attracting, keeping good teachers.

So Gore’s plan is heavier on accountability and invests more — if it’s apportioned to surplus — to make sure our kids get the help they need to succeed.

Points of high contrast

RAY SUAREZ: Jeanne Allen, when you look at the two plans put forward by the campaigns, what are some of the places of high contrast, the places where you find particular interest?

JEANNE ALLEN: Well, that’s interesting. Vice President Gore believes that schools are failing because they don’t have enough resources, whereas Governor Bush believes that schools are failing in spite of the resources.

So the biggest contrast is Bush looks at this as a way for the President to provide rewards and incentives with the federal money for schools that are doing well, and to come down on schools that are failing, whereas Gore says, “you know what, they’re failing because their buildings are falling apart, or their class sizes are too big, et cetera. The interesting thing is they’re both kind of wrong for lots of different reasons. First of all, the president can only do so much.

It’s a minuscule role. Most of all, the president can be a coach, a cheerleader, someone who drives efforts at the local level. But what people really want around the country – what parents and activists are screaming for — is someone to support them in a background way with the very changes that they’re making right now as this whole dialogue is going on.

Real local control, not the kind of local control we heard bandied about in the promo to this or the intro to this — real local control requires real parents and teachers making fundamental choices and decisions about what’s going on in their school, not the district, not even at the state legislative level. So pushing authority down to the local level is what people really want. And they want dramatic reform that allows them to make those decisions.

Now, the president can certainly help promote that and push that, and the president should, in fact, as Bush for example is suggesting, close down programs like Title I which spends enormous sums of money and by its own analysis says it’s not working. But at the same time, he can’t raise standards like he’s doing in Texas and Al Gore can’t lower class size or give teachers tests that are valid. Only people at the local level can do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Wilkins, what do you see when you look at the two plans?

AMY WILKINS: You see a lot of similarity, and frankly the Education Trust sees a lot of room for hope in both programs. You see both candidates talking about real accountability in exchange for the federal investment in education. That’s a first and that’s very important.

The other thing you see that the piece at the beginning didn’t talk about is for the first time we see both national candidates talking about that it’s a priority to close the achievement gap that separates low-income kids from affluent kids and kids of color from white kids. Those are very, very important things. There are also clear deficits in the plans of both candidates. Gore frankly is taking on too much. You know, the federal investment, as Jeanne said, is rather limited.

And we really believe that you can’t sort of be all things to all people and be very successful, that the appropriate role for the federal government is to identify a couple priorities and really go after them and leverage change in those areas. Mr. Bush says he’s going to leverage change and close the achievement gap. That’s right. You know, on the other hand, Mr. Bush…Governor Bush is wrong on some stuff. The voucher proposal that he’s put forward makes no sense.

It’s silliness. And the other thing is, we do need an increased investment. You know, Mr. Gore is talking about a substantial increase in funding, and we need that increase in funding. So both of them have it sort of right, both of them have it sort of wrong, but there’s room for hope.

Federal versus local control

RAY SUAREZ: Both our analysts here, Nina Rees, have questioned just how much the president can do when it comes to education. Isn’t this an institution that’s still very heavily locally controlled?

NINA REES: Education is primarily a state and local issue, but at times when 70 percent of our fourth graders are unable to read at a basic level on national reading exams, I do think that calls for some form of federal intervention and help.

I think our localities and our states could use the extra helping hand, not just more funding, but resources and technical help as to how it is that you can best boost reading achievement, for instance. And I also think that the federal dollar, especially in large cities, which it can actually go up to 15 percent in some big center cities, that that federal dollar can actually change the habits of localities.

So if you say, for instance, that here is money and you can only hire teachers with this money, chances are the locality is simply going to invest in more teachers, but if you say, here is funding for you to come up with the best way to raise teacher quality, then chances are the superintendent is going to think a little bit more creatively about ways to not just recruit good teachers, but also invest in professional development and other measures to keep good teachers in the classroom and to also perhaps offer them more pay.

So I personally think that the flexible option is a better option because our school districts and each and every one of our schools and each and every one of our children come with different needs and demands and having a lot of one size fits all solutions is not going to work.

But I do think the 70 percent can go far if you concentrate it on key goals such as closing the achievement gap or such as making sure that every third grader can read a basic children’s book or by making sure that every single penny invested at the federal level is a penny invested to raise student achievement and future wage gains which are the proposals that Governor Bush set forth.

RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Wilkins, in particular, was very critical of the Bush voucher plan. Explain how a federal dollar gets to be a voucher in somebody’s hand in Chillicothe, Ohio.

NINA REES: Okay. If I may, this proposal is actually part of a larger reform plan. Right now at the federal level, we have a program called Title I, which since 1965 has provided over 125 billion dollars to states and localities for them to offer remedial help to low-income children in order to close the achievement gap.

That gap is as wide as ever before, and in some school districts, the money is currently being used to hire people who are not actual teachers. They’re called paraprofessionals. Oftentimes they don’t even have a teaching degree or any kind of degree at all. Yet, they’re in classrooms with students who need a good teacher the most. What Governor Bush has outlined is very simple; he is saying let’s focus the Title I program back on children. Let’s turn it into a child-centered program.

And if a child has attended a school that’s receiving Title I funding for three years in a row, let’s… and if the school has not improved for three years in a row, let’s make sure the money goes to the child’s parents for them to decide if they want to keep it in that school or if they want to purchase a tutor outside of school, a Sylvan Learning Center program, an after school program, a summer school program or to subsidize private education. It’s not necessarily a voucher per se. I think it’s more of a mechanism to give public schools a bit of a challenge and also to encourage them to reform themselves instead of encouraging failure, which is unfortunately I think in a lot of school districts are doing that.

We have over 6,000 failing schools around the country. So when Dan talks about how Vice President Gore is going to go in and shut down these schools, my question to him is, these schools have been on the failing list now for two years at least, because the report is a 1996 report.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go right to him and find out exactly what he wants to do. Jonathan Schnur?

JONATHAN SCHNUR: Right. The national government, the national government can make a big impact in education if it’s focused in certain ways. It can make an impact if it’s focused on accountability, for example, to make sure that all teachers have passed rigorous assessments to ensure that they know their subject area. Nina mentioned the important issue of having teachers who have academic background in their subject area and are qualified.

Al Gore has a plan to ensure that all teachers are tested, that all teachers are qualified and have academic background in their subject area. And Governor Bush doesn’t. It also… Al Gore also has a plan that would invest in helping every kid get the start they need with high-quality preschool. Governor Bush hasn’t proposed an additional dollar as far as I understand to expand preschool for young children.

So there’s a big impact you can make if you focus on certain areas, particularly on areas that make a difference to kids in high poverty schools. I also would just comment on a couple factual corrections. One is there has been some progress in this country in education over the past few years. There’s been progress in reading and math and SAT scores and college attendance rates and reducing the dropout rate. It is not enough.

The progress needs to be accelerated dramatically and the question is how can you, not just with language and rhetoric, but actually have an aggressive national plan to help improve schools and a fixing failing schools plan that lets a school sit without any additional investments, without any demand for change for three years is not serving those kids well in who are in that school.

RAY SUAREZ: But you believe that there is something fundamentally different that you’d be able to see at classroom-level if one man or the other wins in November?

JONATHAN SCHNUR: If you look at their proposals on low-performing schools, for example, or more generally if Al Gore is elected, kids across the country will attend… have smaller classes. They will have better paid teachers; they will have teachers who will pass assessments, making sure they know their subject area well. And low-performing schools, immediately there will be action. They will have after-school programs to give them extra help with the schools getting turned around.

They will have fast, fair ways to either improve or remove low-performing teachers. And in two years there will be dramatic change in those schools with new principals and teachers coming in to help turn around the school — significant change while after two years nothing has happened in the low-performing schools under the Bush plan. And part of the reason Gore can do this is because he hasn’t used $1.6 trillion for a tax cut.

RAY SUAREZ: That will have to be the last word. Jonathan Schnur, guests, thank you all.