DECEMBER 26, 1996
Earlier this month the Democrats released their education package for the 105th Congress. Amongst the proposals were: annual tax reductions to help families pay for college and federal funding to upgrade school technology. To take a closer look at what all this means, Margaret Warner talks with two members of Congress.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
December 2, 1996:
Washington DC tries to fix its troubled public schools.
November 21, 1996:
A comparative study reveals that American students trail Asian nations in math and science but perform similarly as young people in Germany or England.
The Chairman and Ranking Member of the House committee on education and labor discuss what policies we can expect from the 105th Congress
Check out the Online Forum on the 21st Century Classroom?
An Online debate on the pros and cons of School vouchers.
The Online NewsHour looks at Education and Politics in the Congress.
August 22, 1996:
Bob Dole advisor and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander debates school choice, the political work of the unions and merit pay for teachers with Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
July 23, 1996:
President Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley debates education reform with William Bennett.
April 17, 1996:
Politicians and educators have embraced school uniforms as a way to reduce violence in public schools.
March 27, 1996:
Politicians and business leaders gather for an education summit
Browse Online NewsHour's Education coverage
MARGARET WARNER: The proposal by Senate Democrats would fund five education programs that President Clinton advocated during the election campaign. They are tuition assistance of $1,500 per student in either grants or tax credits for the first two years of college, annual tax reductions of $10,000 to help families pay for college, subsidies for school construction or renovation bonds, federal funding to upgrade school technology, like connecting computers to the Internet, and literacy assistance for parents, tutoring programs, and Head Start to ensure that every third grader can read. For a debate on these ideas we turn now to Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, one of the chief sponsors of the initiatives, and Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Labor & Human Resources Committee which oversees education. Welcome, gentlemen. Sen. Dorgan, why do we need this kind of federal assistance to public education right now?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN, (D) North Dakota: Well, first of all, we have a real challenge in education that we have to meet, and we're not suggesting that the principal function of the U.S. Congress is to address the central needs of elementary and secondary education. We understand that is largely a function of local and state governments. But there are some things we can do, and we have established five approaches that represent challenges in which we become a partner. And one of the things that we hope very much is that in the call for bipartisanship that I hope very much will materialize in this Congress that we will see substantial bipartisanship on the issue of education. Children's education is not and should not be a partisan issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Republicans are going to be interested in these proposals from what you've seen of them?
SEN. BILL FRIST, (R) Tennessee: Well, I think that the Republicans are going to be very, very committed to making education primary in the overall agenda of the 105th Congress. I don't think there's an American alive today who would deny that education for our children is critical and vital to not only their future but the future of that next generation in the future of this country. I am pleased that the Democrats started that dialogue just last week with laying out these five principles. I think the dialogue can be very constructive as we discuss each one of those. On the other hand, there's some really underlying principles that are not addressed at all, and they go back to allowing some innovation in the way we structurally deliver education today. And the concern of parents today and every American citizen is how can we make the system better. And we can't do it by just throwing money at a system today which we tried to do in the past, and it just hasn't worked.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: One of the things that is evident now is that education is changing rapidly. I came from a school, a high school class of nine, nine students in Regent, North Dakota. We had a library the size of a very small closet. With new technology the school in Regent, North Dakota, is going to have access to the biggest libraries in the world through the Internet, and part of this challenge is for us to try to work with state and local governments to make that technology available to every single classroom. That's part of the President's challenge as well.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, that is one of the specific proposals. Why is this something that the federal government has to pay for?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, it's not something the federal government will do by itself. That's why it's called a challenge. It is something that we as a nation can do to describe a program or a series of events that can lead state and local government to match this so that we can by the year 2000 as a country have every classroom wired to the Internet. I mean, when you think about it, it is remarkable for the smallest school in this country to be able to access the biggest library in America and do it just like that. So that we happen to believe education ought to be at the top of the agenda. Sen. Frist, I think appropriately said as well the Republicans have as deep an interest in education as we do, and Thomas Jefferson once said any country that believes you can be both ignorant and free believes in something that never was and never can be. I mean, education has to be at the top of our agenda this year.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And what will this particular proposal, this one of the five, which is connecting all these schools to Internet, what would that cost?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, the President has proposed about a $2 billion program that is called a technology challenge program, and that would be matched with state and local money and would allow us then to move forward and connect every classroom in this country to the Internet.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Do you think that's too--
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I'm a great advocate of technology and in my own field of medicine, before coming to the Senate, has revolutionized, and I think it will revolutionize education. I will add that a state like Tennessee, my home state, has spent over the last several years about $600 million connecting all the schools without the federal government coming in. So that can be accomplished. And I'm not sure we have to have a federal initiative where we in Washington, D.C., deliver a computer to every school. And I'm not sure it'll accomplish what we want. I say that, and I believe in technology, and would like to see all the schools hooked up--I'm not sure it needs to be a federal initiative. I also say that's a $2 billion or a $4 billion program today, where our needs are so basic when you go into a K-1, or a third grade or a sixth grade where teachers say, well, we'd like to have the computer, we'd like to have the technology, we'd like to have the hook-up, but I need some basic things that I'm not getting, and that might be books and supplies, where I can really teach people the basics of learning. So I think, and part of the Republican agenda, which I think this dialogue has sort of opened up, will include going back to the very basics. How can we take that third grader and make sure that they really can read and write with the tools that we give them? So, I'd almost also rather see that $3 billion taken down to the local school level and ask that teacher, what do you need to best instruct that individual student? It might be a computer. It might be a blackboard. It might be a textbook. But let that person in the local community decide how to spend that same 2 to 3 billion.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: There's not a great difference here. I'm not suggesting, nor is President Clinton suggesting the federal government is going to be the instrument by which we deliver this technology to all the schools. We are suggesting the federal government can be a partner in trying to stimulate, in trying to help the local governments achieve these goals. I was laying on my back on the floor of Soheim Elementary School in Bismarck, North Dakota, not too many weeks ago, and students, and teachers, and parents, and all of us were wiring every room in that school, and we did it on a volunteer basis. And that can happen all over this country with something we did in Net Day in North Dakota. And other states have done the same thing. We're going to have to do a lot of this, getting parents and teachers and others involved. But you also are going to have to have some investment. And we're not suggesting the federal government investment be the major investment, but we think this can stimulate some of the right initiatives all across this country.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, there seems to be a basic philosophical difference here in which you and your fellow Democrats are saying, let's choose three or four or five targets for targeted federal assistance. You're saying let's re-examine education and get back to basics. What's wrong with this targeted approach at the same time that say, for instance, you do a more fundamental reassessment?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I think if you look at the agenda that laid out today that really again initiates the overall constructive dialogue, there's really very little in those five points that go back to the local school, that go back to empower that teacher, to empower parents, nothing really mentioned about safety and discipline in schools, all of which I think is so fundamental to having good education for our children and their future. It's very attractive to talk about technology. It is very important, I think, but it's not the core issue. It's almost like we're denying that our education system today is collapsing, and it is. We have people graduating from high school--2/3 of the people graduating from high school don't know when the Civil War was. A third of them don't even know what century it was in. We have seniors graduating from high school who can't add or can't divide and multiply whole numbers. So it's great to be jumping to the technology of computers, but I think we need to first come back and say how do we empower teachers, how do we empower parents, how do we look at safety and discipline so that we can really address at that fundamental level education, growth, and there's nothing mentioned in these five points about that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me turn this around. Let me just take the question and turn it around. Is your approach too piecemeal? I mean, that's what he keeps saying, that you need something much deeper and more profound here.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Right. What Sen. Frist said is true, that we have an enormous challenge just getting back to basics in our education. I think he would agree, however, that we will never have a circumstance or should where the federal government is seen as wanting to go back in and deal with those basics. I mean, the fact is that's a function of the local school boards, the local communities, the state legislatures. They don't want and we shouldn't want the federal government deciding that we're going to tell our people how to run our local schools. And we have to go back to basics back home in our towns, in our school boards, and start putting this back together. Our point is whether it's with respect to the literacy challenge and the technology challenges, that there are some other things that we can do even as state and local governments and the school boards are trying to meet these “get back to basics” challenges. My hope is that through these kinds of discussions Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress can put education at the top, not wanting to run the education system in our country, especially elementary and secondary, but decide together what kinds of things could make education perform better and work better, be better for our children. And I think there are some common areas of agreement that working together we will achieve in the 105th Congress.
MARGARET WARNER: Were there any of these five proposals that you think Republicans could essentially sign on to?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Oh, I think each one is going to be examined. I think the Republican approach, again, is going to come back more to how can we make our system better, how can we build a better bridge, how can we encourage innovation, and encourage empowering teachers, and parents. It may be choice. It may be choosing schools. It may be what President Clinton had mentioned about charter schools. None of that innovation and creativity if this is the Democrat agenda, which it was laid out to be last week, where is that innovation, that chance of building a better bridge, not just driving more cars over the bridge, but really building a better bridge? In my own field of medicine it's like if you have a bad heart and you want to treat it with a medicine, you can't just throw more medicine at it, you may have to change the medicine a little bit. And right now our school system is so rigid that charter schools, that's something at the federal level we might do. We might make it so at least we can look at that as an alternative, and instill some competition.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: We've been talking about elementary and secondary education. A couple of the points deal with higher education, and you know the question of whether students will have access to the resources to go to college. One of the areas where I hope we will see some agreement is, for example, the Hope Scholarship Fund, or the deductibility, up to $10,000 of college expenses for a family. That is an enormous burden when a family discovers they've got someone ready for college. I would hope that we could find some agreement on the deductibility of costs of sending their kids to college.
MARGARET WARNER: Could you agree with any of that?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I think we need to look and address the issue of the middle class, which is what that particular item does, to make it easier to go college, but it's very complex if we're really just giving cash payments to that group of people or a certain segment who make a certain B or B+ average; if we do that, there's a real concern on the flip side that higher education costs are going to go up, that simply the state colleges, as well as private colleges, are going to simply have their tuition escalate, and if that does happen, we're, in fact, hurting the middle class, the broader middle class, instead of helping. So, again, I agree with the goal. I'm not sure that is the best approach. We might have a tax exempt, prepaid college education fund that's tax exempt, and that you can invest in as your child is growing up. We could go back to the $500 per child tax credit that the President agreed with that over a period of 18 years would fully pay for your education, a typical education, for four years at a public institution. So there are lots of different ways to achieving that goal. The dialogue has been opened up, and now hopefully we're going to have a very constructive dialogue over the next several months to achieve that goal.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly. Since you, Democrats, don't run Congress, what do you think are the prospects for getting something along the lines of what you're proposing?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I think pretty good. I mean, we proposed a menu. We're not suggesting that this is the only menu that could work, but I think that we will find quickly that the Republicans and Democrats both agree that we face enormous challenges in education. It ought to be at the top of the agenda. Sen. Frist just said we support many of these goals. Well, then the question is how do we achieve the goals? Maybe some changes here or there, but we're very interested in a bipartisan approach dealing with education. That's the way Congress ought to work on an issue such as education.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, thank you very much.