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Education Reform

December 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: It took five months for the House and Senate to settle on an education compromise that Democrats, Republicans, and the White House could live with.

At the table for those negotiations were the chairman of the House and Senate Education Committees, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Congressman John Boehner of Ohio.

Congressman Boehner, so what was the key to this compromise after all that hard work?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: The real key that kept us together was a commitment, commitment on the part of the president of the United States, a commitment on the part of Senator Kennedy, Senator Greg, Congressman Miller, and myself, along with our conferees to produce a real legislative package that would help the neediest of our children, and both the executive branch and the congressional branch worked closely together to forge this final package.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kennedy, I guess I’ll ask you the same question. How important was it that President Bush had made this a cornerstone of his presidential campaign and his presidency?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, I think it was important. Three years ago when we had this legislation before the United States Senate, we debated it for three weeks without being able to come to a conclusion, but the time was different this year, and I think the president deserves credit for it. I think Congressman Boehner and Judd Greg do and George Miller.

I think there’s a recognition and an understanding by all of us, I think the president as well, and that is that American families want our educational systems to work. They want to have help and assistance for children in the public schools of this nation. If the children are doing well, they want their children to do better. If the children aren’t doing well, they want to see reform and change made.

And there’s increasing targeted on some of the neediest children in this country, so this is a good bill, and it represents the progress that has been made among the better schools and school districts in our country, and we believe that it isn’t going to solve all of the problems that we’re facing in education.

We set a goal that all children in this country 12 years from now will be proficient. So we understand that this is a complex and difficult issue.

And there are going to be many additional steps that will be necessary along the way, but all of us are committed to following in those steps, and I think we can make an important difference for children all over this country.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, I want to go through some of those details with you in just a moment, but first I want to ask you, on Sept. 10, some members of Congress were quoted as saying that this bill was near dead, if not dead, but that by Sept. 11, the events of Sept. 11 somehow seemed to revive it.

Is that – was that your take on it?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Not really. I think all of us as members of the Congress, just as human beings, were obviously temporarily numbed by the extraordinary tragedy that impacted our country and as well as by the incredible heroism of Americans.

So I think all of us, as human beings, were going through that experience, but I don’t really think it in any way deflected our central commitment to try to get this done.

I think that as the chairman has pointed out quite really from the beginning we all had a keen desire to achieve something that will be worthy of the children in this country, and I think we have.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Boehner, how about that, how important was it that Congress have something positive, bipartisan, successful to show after Sept. 11?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, our commitment was there far before Sept. 11, and the conference was just beginning its work as the tragedy struck our country.

But I do think that there was a renewed commitment to show the American people that the Congress was about its business, that while the president and others were focused in on the war effort and the protection of our homeland, is that whether we’re at war our not, our children are our future.

And it was very important for us to show the American people that we can do our work, we can do it successfully. And I think the proudest part of all of this, beyond the product itself, is that our colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate feel very good about not only the product that we have, but the process we went through to get here.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about some of the details of this compromise. One of the interesting things that’s missing that’s always been a contentious point, Congressman, is the issue of school vouchers, providing vouchers for public school students to go to private schools. That’s entirely not there.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: That is correct, and I’m a big proponent of empowering parents to take a more active role in choosing schools for their children, but the fact is the votes are not in the House, the votes are not in the Senate.

But every time over the last 11 years that I’ve worked on this, we’ve gotten more votes. And at some point in this process, I believe that we will do more to empower parents.

In this bill, even though we don’t have what you would describe as vouchers, we do have for poor students who are trapped in failing schools, for the first time ever they will get supplemental services to allow them and their parents to choose to get tutors, after-school programs, summer schools from the suppliers of their choice.

And these will be private-sector people, community-based organizations, maybe religious- based organizations, in order to ensure that every child in America, even if they’re in a bad school, will have a real option at getting a good education.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kennedy, this also puts states in an interesting position in terms of it gives them more flexibility for spending, but it also means they have to be the ones holding these schools accountable.

Are you giving governors enough support for that?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, I think the focus of the support goes into the local community where they will be able to use the resources in the most effective way for academic achievement and accomplishment.

And basically what we are doing in this for the families that might be watching, we are challenging the states to come on up with what we call content standards, what a child ought to know in the fourth grade.

And then we hope that they will develop a good curriculum for those children, again, say in the fourth grade, and there are resources in this bill to make sure that we get a well-trained teacher that can teach that child the curriculum.

And then we’re going to have an assessment of those children to see what progress they are being made. We have too many tests for children, just generally speaking, but we don’t have these kinds of good assessments that are used to help children rather than punish the children. And that is a different kind of a concept.

GWEN IFILL: Senator

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: That’s something we’re very, very strongly committed to. And that’s going to take a combination of both working at the state level and the local community, and there are resources for that challenge.

GWEN IFILL: What happens with students who are tested or schools which are tested or teachers who are tested if after a certain amount of time there is no improvement?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, there’s a series of different provisions in this legislation — the first phase of it are school improvements.

But basically, what you’re talking about, after the two years, there will be the option for the children to make some decision if they want to go to another public school, but there will be the supplementary services that will be available in terms of in school to help and assist those children that need it or off of the school campus if they need it, maybe in the after-school programs if that’s the best place to provide the help and assistance. But there will be good help and assistance available to the children, and the point is to do it early on, to find out what the children, where they need the help and assistance and to provide that.

And beyond that, we’re giving parents, we’re empowering parents, we’re giving them a very important report card so that they will know how their particular school is doing versus their neighborhood schools, whether their teachers are highly professional to deal with the subject matter or not.

And then there will be a break-out in terms of how children are doing so that parents will be able to compare and contrast and know how their children are doing. Information is power, and to give that kind of information to the parents, we believe will create a force to help them improve the schools as well.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, if there has been any complaint at all so far about this bill is that it does not include enough money, some folks have said, for disabled students; that instead of… I guess it’s 40 percent of the amount of cost of supporting disabled students the federal government is paying much less and that this bill doesn’t do much to change that.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, the program that we have for disabled children, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, as it’s referred to, IDEA, is not part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It’s its own separate program that’s up for reauthorization next year.

Now this program goes back to 1975, and Congress for a long time really just didn’t step up to the plate. But Democrats and Republicans over the last six years have stepped up to the plate. We’ve increased funding for this program by some 200 percent over the last six years, and we’re continuing to make progress.

Now next year when we have the reauthorization of this act, we have to be honest that there are serious problems. It over identifies children into these IDEA programs; it over identifies minorities into these programs.

And in some cases, it costs local school districts tremendous amounts of money unnecessarily because of the wide-open liability provisions that we have here.

And what I think many of us want to do is next year is to look at this reauthorization and try to fix the problems that are there with a commitment that Congress will continue to step up and to get the full funding of this program.

GWEN IFILL: While you’re talking about funding, state governments are having a much more difficult time in this economy than the federal government, even the federal government is now in deficit.

What’s the danger that the federal dollars, which are going to these programs is now going to be undercut, offset by state cuts?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, there’s pretty clear language in this bill as there has been in the past that the states can’t supplant this new money that comes from Washington and remove resources that they’re already providing.

The states are under the gun, but it’s doubtful to me that you’re going to see any real cuts in education funding. The states are having these financial problems. We may not see the cuts in increases they were committing to their schools, but I don’t think we’re going to see any actual cuts in funding.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kennedy, you–

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: This is–

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kennedy, go ahead.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: You put your finger right on the areas of some differences that we had in the conference.

I’m a strong believer that we should provide for the full funding, for the federal participation of the disabled children.

We’re only providing about 17 cents out of every dollar. And we know what a difference it makes when these children are able to graduate. We know their graduation rates are two or three times higher than what they used to be five or seven years ago. The employment rates, their ability to have independent living is enormously important. And two-thirds of the children that qualify for the IDEA are also title I children, so we’re talking about a similar group of children. And this was the time to make some difference.

And the final point that I’d make, we are only reaching about a third of all the children that are qualified. We’re going to have to have additional kinds of resources. The administration provided additional resources now this year that would have reached 600,000 additional children. But with the recession, that’s going to still only mean that we’re reaching about 35 percent.

So if we want to achieve what President Bush has stated is his objective and which I think all of us support, and that is that we don’t want to leave children behind, we’re going to have to have responsibility for children to learn hard — well; we’re going to have to have responsibility in the schools to make sure that they’re doing their job, parents are doing their job.

States then have to measure up, and so does the federal government to make sure that no child is left behind.

GWEN IFILL: A very brief question to both of you, is this the beginning of a new attention to education spending and education issues, or is this the end for a while? Senator, first?

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, no, we have, education is central to us as a nation in terms of our democracy and in terms of our ability to lead the world.

We will have follow-on next year on what we call the IDEA, then we will have a follow-on on the higher education. Education is a prime concern for families across the country and we are committed to making sure that we meet our responsibilities.

GWEN IFILL: And Congressman Boehner, the same question to you.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This is just the beginning of the process.

Once the president signs this bill into law, each of the 50 states are going to have to step up and enact laws in their states to comply with this new federal effort.

We know that from the 1994 Act, only about eleven or twelve states have actually successfully stepped up to do what’s necessary.

But if we’re serious about ensuring that no child in America is left behind, it’s time for all of us to get behind this effort to make sure it’s implemented and to make sure that every child in America has a shot at a good education.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman John Boehner, Senator Edward Kennedy, thank you both very much for joining us.