JULY 23, 1996
In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, voters said dealing with education was the most important issue of the 1996 presidential election, and both Bob Dole and President Clinton have embraced the issue in recent speeches. Bob Dole talked about education at a Catholic high school in Minneapolis, and President Clinton before the National Education Association Convention in Washington. Their speeches are followed by a debate between Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, and former Bush administration education secretary, William Bennett.
March 27, 1996:
Politicians and business leaders gather for an education summit
Browse Online NewsHour's Education coverage
JIM LEHRER: Now to the differences between these two on education as seen by Mr. Clintons Education Secretary Richard Riley and by William Bennett, who was Education Secretary in the Reagan administration, now an adviser to Bob Dole. Sec. Riley, first of all, would you agree with Sen. Dole that President Clintons administration has done everything he can to kill the school choice movement in this country?
RICHARD RILEY, Secretary of Education: Well, of course, President Clinton is strong for choice within the public system--charter schools, public school choice, magnet schools, all of those things, within the public school system. He absolutely is opposed, and I am opposed to transferring public tax dollars to private schools through a voucher program. I think thats a mistake. I think its wrong. Its harmful to public education. And I think its harmful to private and parochial schools. It makes them less private and less parochial.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Sec. Bennett, you support that voucher system, do you not, that Sen. Dole does?
WILLIAM BENNETT, Dole Educational Adviser: Absolutely. And I believe it is unconscionable for the Clinton administration to be opposed to it. These are public tax dollars, and children who go to Catholic schools or Baptist schools or Lutheran schools are every bit as much of the public as children who go to state-supported or government schools. We have choice in the American system of higher education. If you get a Pell Grant or a guaranteed student loan, you can go to Yeshiva, you can go to Notre Dame, you can go to Liberty Baptist, youll be theologically very confused if you go to all three, but you can go--
JIM LEHRER: One or the other.
SEC. BENNETT: Right. Constitutionally you can do it. The difficulty here, it seems to me, with the Clinton administrations position is that it acknowledges that there are differences, dramatic differences in schools around the country, but it fails to give opportunity to children who do not have the means to get out of a bad school and go to a good school.
JIM LEHRER: Sec. Riley.
SEC. RILEY: Well, I think Bill well knows that state constitutions generally require free public education provided by the state. Thats K through 12. That doesnt extend to higher education. So we fully recognize the states responsibility, the local function, to provide free public education for all children in the state. Now when you get over into higher education, thats a whole different deal. Theres no state requirement for that. So on a higher education level, every student is on their own. We handle all those programs totally different, but we respect the state and local control and responsibility for K through 12.
SEC. BENNETT: States can very well provide for this free education by providing an opportunity for parents through scholarships, to let parents get the money directly and choose whatever school they want. Again, the difficulty here is that the Clintons come to Washington D.C., they are given the choice of any public school in Washington, D.C., public school choice, which weve just heard lauded, but not one school, public school in Washington, D.C., was good enough for their daughter. That was their judgment, so they enrolled her in a private school, but that same choice is denied to the thousands, hundreds of thousands of parents in Washington, D.C.
SEC. RILEY: Well, of course, when the Clintons were in Arkansas, Chelsea went to the public school and got along there and loved it. When she came here, its a whole different deal with the President of the United States and their daughter. Theyve got a perfect right and an obligation to send her where they think that they ought to send her. The Presidents daughter is totally different from all other children.
SEC. BENNETT: Most people think their daughters are pretty special and in terms--I understand the security considerations--but these have been dealt with before with other Presidents children. The question is--the issue is, do we get real educational opportunity in this country or not, do we say to the children of Washington, D.C., and their parents, you just go to these schools whether theyre good or bad, we have the money, we will send our child where we want them to go?
SEC. RILEY: Well, Sen. Dole has said, give them a thousand dollars out of the public tax money into the private school. That is no guarantee at all of a good private schools education. Thats false hope if you think giving a poor child $1,000--
JIM LEHRER: I have several friends where Chelsea Clinton goes. Its six, seven thousand dollars a year.
SEC. BENNETT: Its a good deal more than that.
SEC. RILEY: Its a lot more than that.
SEC. BENNETT: But Ill tell you, Jim, if you give the thirty or forty million schoolchildren, their parents, a thousand dollars each or a thousand dollars in scholarships, you will create a supply of schools unlike anything youve ever seen, and you will then see competition.
JIM LEHRER: You think new schools would start?
SEC. BENNETT: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Hey, Ill do it for $1500 or $2000?
SEC. BENNETT: Sure. And you will see competition. Sometimes that $1,000 or $500 is the difference between what a parent can afford and not.
SEC. RILEY: That might be so for a wealthy child. For a poor child, thats no option at all. And, and yes, you would see entrepreneurs, all kinds of entrepreneurs starting all kinds of schools and then youve got the responsibility then of saying how youre going to control and see that the child is getting a good education. So you dont want the government getting into private and parochial schools. Thats a problem weve had in higher education. Some of the higher education schools, private schools of course, where they have not been schools at all, weve had to close down over 700 colleges and schools of higher education since weve been here, just three and a half years.
JIM LEHRER: Lets move to another issue. In both of those clips and every survey thats been taken of the public, the question about safety in the schools is a major issue. Both President Clinton and Senator Dole just spoke about it. As a practical matter, what can the President of the United States or the Secretary of Education do about the safety in a public school?
SEC. RILEY: Well, in the public school, again, we see the federal role as supporting state and local schools. The Safe and Drug Free Schools Act is a perfect example of sending funds down and let the state get their own program. Sen. Dole favored cutting that amount in half, as I recall. Yet, he put safety as his No. 1 thing in terms of his warranty that he wants to give people. President Clinton wants to do all he can to help state and local schools with safe and drug and discipline with uniforms and other options that they might have.
SEC. BENNETT: The President can do something but it is primarily a state and local matter. One thing that can be done, we did it when I was there, I think Sec. Riley continues to let principals know that parents know what they can do, what is--what you are allowed to do, what the law provides.
JIM LEHRER: You mean from a discipline standpoint?
SEC. BENNETT: Thats exactly right. But one of the problems here is that you know everybody has their rights now. Everybody wants to appeal every decision made by every school official. An official here at a high school just threw out 15 students for selling lap top computers. He thought this was a pretty easy decision. They stole the computers and then sold them downtown. The response he got from some parents was why did you do it to my son, other parents was good, you did the right thing. But half the mail he got was from big shot law firms in Washington; theyre now going to appeal his decision all the way down the line.
This kind of litigation has made some people gun shy. The President, I think, can send a signal--President Clinton, President Dole--can send a signal by saying, look, we need some help on this front. If you want discipline in your school, you--of course there are procedures to observe, but weve got to make it possible for teachers to teach and administrators to administer.
JIM LEHRER: How would you judge the seriousness of that problem, Mr. Secretary? You stay up on this. Its your job. How serious is the safety problem in the public schools right now?
SEC. RILEY: Well, its--any safety problem is serious. If theres one violence occurring--
JIM LEHRER: Is it any worse, or is it getting better?
SEC. RILEY: I think--I think hopefully its getting better. Youve got in the elementary schools very little of that and the school is probably the safest place in a community. Our communities have trouble, and if youve got a violence-ridden community, poverty, and all other kind of breakdowns, family breakdown, community breakdown, youre going to have trouble spill over into the schools. The schools I dont think cause the problems. But they are the recipient of other community problems, and the schools then I think are trying in every way, moving in the direction of certainly trying to have them safe and drug free and disciplined. Discipline is an important part of preventing violence.
SEC. BENNETT: There are some schools--some elementary schools--in fact, the number of elementary schools where there are serious problems with violence, where elementary schoolchildren carry weapons and again, nobody should have to go to a school that is that unsafe--there are children in this city and in other cities who are trapped in schools that are unsafe. And go into schools, take a tour of the D.C. city schools--Ive done it a number of times--Im sure Sec. Riley has--my wife works in the D.C. schools--and youll see many of them--every door is chained once the student get in there, chained from the outside world. Thats not a situation we should have to force children into.
JIM LEHRER: Back to some more pure politics on this, Sec. Bennett, Sen. Dole and--he made two or three speeches on education last week--in one of them he severely criticized President Clinton for listening--I dont have the direct quote in front of me--but for listening to the pressure groups, meaning the Teachers Unions, et cetera--rather than the students and parents. Whats he talking about?
SEC. BENNETT: Hes talking about the National Education Association, and what Bob Dole is saying is that Bill Clinton is a captive, held captive by the NEA. And I have to agree. I think the NEA is one of the most reprehensible organizations within the law. There are some illegal organizations that are worse in the United States. It is opposed to every serious educational reform. It puts its own interest ahead of the children. It has complained so bitterly about the teaching profession that it has discouraged many people from going into teaching, and Bill Clinton knows theyre a big contributor. Right after his election, he thanked them for their effort and said, "I will not forget you who brought me here."
And I think for Bob Dole to go head on against the NEA was an act of political courage. Im glad he did it. Theyre big, and theyre powerful. But youve got to know that these people are the difficulty, one of the major obstacles to serious reform.
JIM LEHRER: What about that charge?
SEC. RILEY: I dont think theres any question about theres politics involved, but I dont think it was political courage. Educators are for Bill Clinton generally because he is pro-education. Sen. Doles record in terms of voting on all these education matters is not what I would call making him an Education Senator. Now Bill Clinton, when he was governor, took on the teachers organizations in terms of graduating--teacher exams, competency exams--
JIM LEHRER: This was in Arkansas?
SEC. RILEY: This was in Arkansas. Here weve supported strongly charter schools, a number of NEA people have opposed them or whatever. So I dont think you could say that Bill Clinton is in the pocket of anybody. He is pro-education. And teachers are a very important part of education. Its a noble profession. People think of the teachers out there teaching their children, generally they respect them very highly, and I do too. You have bad teachers who should be moved out of the system quickly as possible and in a fair process. But teachers are, are a noble part of the American scene, and we are pro-teacher as long as they are good teachers.
JIM LEHRER: What about the NEA specifically?
SEC. RILEY: The NEA is an organization. When I talk about teachers, we talk about all teachers. We favor good teachers in the classroom, public schools, private schools, and parochial schools.
JIM LEHRER: Whether theyre members of the NEA--
SEC. RILEY: It doesnt make a bit of difference whether theyre in the organization. There are other organizations too, and it doesnt matter. But those education people are watching education. And Ill tell you theyre for Bill Clinton for a good reason.
SEC. BENNETT: Let me concede one point for the sake of making another point. About eight years ago almost to the day I was on this show and I was debating Bill Clinton about Mike Dukakis and his education credentials.
JIM LEHRER: I remember that.
SEC. BENNETT: And I said I wished Dukakis had Clintons education credentials as a governor, and Dick Rileys exactly right. As a governor, Bill Clinton showed some guts. He stood up to the teachers union on testing and on other things. He wrote a fan letter to Polly Williams in Milwaukee because he was then a fan of educational choice--this courageous black woman who has led the charge in Milwaukee.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
SEC. BENNETT: But since becoming President, since the delegates arrived, since the cash arrived, his lips have been sealed--not one word against the National Education Association. He knows where his bread is buttered.
JIM LEHRER: All right. And we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.