READING, WRITING AND REFORM
AUGUST 22, 1996
The way in which students are educated has become a hot topic of political debate. Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole has criticized teachers unions for standing in the way of reforming the education system. 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.
MARGARET WARNER: The mixing of politics and education is not a new trend. But in this presidential election year it's the teachers and their unions that have come under attack. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole singled out the unions during his acceptance speech last week at the Republican convention in San Diego.
July 23, 1996:
President Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley debates education reform with William Bennett, who was Education Secretary in the Reagan administration, and is now an adviser to Bob Dole.
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
SEN. BOB DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: The teachers unions nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. They're funding his reelection now, and they, his most reliable supporters, know he will maintain the status quo. And I say this--I say this not to the teachers but to their unions. (applause) I say this: if education were a war, you would be losing it. If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying. And to the teachers' union I say when I am President, I will disregard your political power for the sake of the parents, the children, the schools, and the nation.
MARGARET WARNER: Dole continued his attacks on teachers unions today. He spoke this afternoon at a rally in Rutherford, New Jersey.
SEN. BOB DOLE: We ought to make certain in America this is America, that every child, every child in America, low income parents, lower middle income parents, that the parents can make a choice to send their children to school, their choice, so they get a good education, a good education. So we're going to have opportunity scholarships in my administration, and I said in San Diego that if the American education system were a business, it would be failing. If it were a patient, it would be dying. We need to turn education back to the teachers and back to the parents and take it away from the union leaders and make it work in America again.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, two different perspectives on the issue of teachers unions and their influence. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is an adviser to the Dole-Kemp campaign. He served as Secretary of Education during the Bush administration. Al Shanker is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers union, with nearly 1 million members. He's held the post since 1974. Welcome, gentlemen. Governor Alexander, given us some specifics to support the charge made by Bob Dole that it's the teachers union standing in the way of improving the public schools.
LAMAR ALEXANDER, Dole/Kemp Adviser: (Nashville) Well, let's do this right here with Mr. Shanker here. Why doesn't he join me and Sen. Dole in taking the Milwaukee experiment, which has given thousands of poor children, black kids, Hispanic kids from the inner city a chance to go to the school of their choice. And a Harvard study now shows that in the third or fourth year they're making real substantial gains in learning, that they're in safe schools. Let's expand that experiment to ten urban areas around the country, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and give those poor kids a chance to go to some of the same schools that my children and the President's children and the Vice President's children have a chance to go to. And Mr. Shanker will join me in that. That will give us a good indication that Sen. Dole and I are wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Governor, are you saying that the basic problem, as you see it, with the teachers union is that they oppose school choice?
GOV. ALEXANDER: One problem is that the teachers unions opposed school choice, they get in the way of giving teachers more freedom to make their own decisions. They opposed, although Mr. Shanker did not, to be fair about it, my efforts in Tennessee to pay teachers more for teaching well. They're not the only problem, but they're standing in the way and a good place to start is why not give more kids a chance who are poor to choose among schools so that nobody's child is forced to go to a bad school. That would be a good place to start.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Shanker.
AL SHANKER, American Federation of Teachers: (New York City) Well, this is just pure politics and teacher bashing. First, on the voucher issue, the voucher issue has come up in referenda in three states. The people of the state of Oregon, California, and Colorado voted on it. In all three of these votes, they rejected vouchers by a two to one vote, so did the people of Washington, D.C., about a decade and a half ago, when they voted on the voucher question.
On the Milwaukee issue, the whole thing is still open. This has been in existence since--the experiment has been in existence for five years. And there have been five annual reports. And now there's a last minute one that came out last week, which is, which is really quite faulty in its statistical analysis. But in the five regular reports, which were commissioned by the state, they basically say that the kids like these schools and the parents like them, but they're not learning any more than youngsters in public schools are learning, or comparable youngsters who tried to get into these schools and who didn't make it.
I think the important thing here is I don't see why a presidential candidate gets on national television to bash teachers and the organizations that they belong to because they differ on something like vouchers. After all, the Japanese have a great school system. They've got no vouchers. The Australians have a great school system; no voucher system over there. The Germans have terrific schools; the Scandinavians. Let's face it. Every other democratic, industrial country in the world has figured out a way of having a good school system, a system where they don't allow disruptive youngsters to destroy the education of all the other systems where they maintain high academic standards, systems where they won't automatically promote you or graduate you or let you into college. I mean, these are the reforms that are important. This image of trying to create a picture in parents' minds that, that the federal government is going to give them enough money to send all their kids to highly desirable and highly selective private schools is just nonsense. It's pure politics, and I think the people will see through it.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor, what about that point, that the school systems abroad that we so admire, they don't have vouchers?
GOV. ALEXANDER: Well, in fact, my children have attended Australian schools. We lived there for a while, and they went to government schools there and they went to private schools there, and in fact, the Australians do have government support for the Catholic schools. But let's go back to Mr. Shanker's point. The average tuition at the private schools in America is about $2,000 that are elementary schools. The average tuition for high schools is about $3500. We're not talking about kids just going to private and religious schools. We're talking about a working mother whose kid is in the third grade, and the teacher doesn't recognize the child's learning disability or the school isn't safe, or the school closes at 3 and the mother works till 5. Why not let her have the choice I have or that President Clinton has and move her child to another school that suits her and her child?
In Milwaukee, which is the only place in America that the teachers union have been defeated so that we can have this kind of experiment, this Harvard Study at the Kennedy School of Government shows that in the third and fourth year the children made such gains in reading and math that if that were applied across the board in America, it would reduce the difference between what white kids learn and what minority kids learn by a third to a half. Now we all talk about children. Why don't we do this?
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, I want to move this beyond the school choice issue, if I could, and deal with teachers unions and how they operate in public schools today. Mr. Shanker, let me just ask you to respond to something that Bob Dole said--you've heard it a couple of times--if education were war, you'd be losing it. Is he right? I mean, is the state of public education today in trouble?
MR. SHANKER: I think public education is in trouble. I think that, by and large, students in the United States are not learning up to the standards of students in most other industrial countries, and I think it's deplorable, and I think if we keep going along, along these same lines, that we will really face very grave consequences as a people and as a nation. So I think something has to be done about it. The question is not that we have a problem and does something have to be done. It's what should we do? Should we do something that nobody else has done and should we take a flawed study that just came out six days ago and say that's the answer, now 50 million youngsters should be going to private schools because, because one study says that this works, or do we do what these other countries have done and set up decent public school systems?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you then, what critics say is that teachers unions have made it hard to set up a decent public school system. They say, for instance, that you've negotiated work rules and tenure rules that reward seniority over competence, that you do make it difficult to reward teachers who teach well, versus just simply those who've been in the tenure track longest, that you have a grievance procedure that makes it hard to get rid of bad teachers, that the teachers unions in general oppose competency testing for teachers. I mean, do these critics have a point?
MR. SHANKER: Well, the critics have a point but they're not really talking about what unions teachers stand for. I personally and the American Federation of Teachers have strongly supported the idea of a very difficult competency test given to teachers before they come into teaching. And we've--remember, we don't hire the teachers. We don't train them. We don't determine what textbooks they're going to use. We don't set homework policy. When our members try to get the students to do their homework and to work hard so that they can learn, and then if a student doesn't do that, they flunk the student, very often the school board, somebody from the school board or the principal's office comes in and says we want everybody to pass; we don't want anybody to flunk. So, you know, if Chrysler were going down and Toyota were selling lots of cars, I doubt that Bob Dole would be standing up there giving a speech attacking the United Automobile Workers. He'd say something is wrong with the management of the automobile industry. And I think something is wrong with the management of schools but it's not the union that runs the schools.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Alexander.
GOV. ALEXANDER: Well, the union does a lot to stand in the way, and since that's the subject of the discussion, let me be specific. When I was governor, as Mr. Shanker knows, I tried to raise the pay of Tennessee teachers by 70 percent if they were among the master teachers and 20 percent for all of them. The National Education Association defeated that the first year, although we overcame them the second.
MARGARET WARNER: That is the largest teacher union, NEA, yes.
GOV. ALEXANDER: That's the largest. The second thing I tried to do was to pay the liability insurance of all the teachers just as we do state employees so teachers can't be sued. The National Education Association, the largest teachers union, defeated that, using the teachers' own dues for that because that's how they get the teachers to join. When I was education secretary, I tried to get Keith Geiger, again with the NEA, the president, to go with me to try to give classroom teachers more control over how they spend federal funding--federal money. He said no because he wants to keep that control in Washington. The unions aren't the only problem. Parents had even more responsibility, but the unions are in the way, and Bob Dole's right to take them on.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Shanker.
MR. SHANKER: Well, you know, look, I went down at that time because I thought that the teachers deserved salary increases; I supported Lamar Alexander's program on that. So you've got two unions and each one of them took a different position on that. But I must say that now, now that it's ten or twelve years later, all that money was spent on supposedly giving superior teachers more money, that's had no effect on the scores in the state of Tennessee. There is no evidence. There is no reseach that's been done that shows that that great reform, which was pushed through and which was very unpopular with teachers, has helped children at all. So--
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Alexander.
MR. SHANKER: --you know, it's not--not every reform is a good reform; some reforms don't have any effect at all; some of them are bad reforms.
GOV. ALEXANDER: Well, Mr. Shanker is being selective about his evidence. He said in July in a letter to the Washington Times there was no evidence that giving poor children more choices of good schools helps. Now the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has conducted a study showing that it makes--that it does do that.
MARGARET WARNER: But what about his point about Tennessee?
GOV. ALEXANDER: So why, why are we just--
MARGARET WARNER: What about his point about Tennessee and the reform that you did manage to push through, did it make a difference?
GOV. ALEXANDER: His point about Tennessee is wrong. It is very hard to say that one change in a teacher's salary affects the whole school, but thousands of Tennessee teachers make more for teaching well, and they feel that their children have benefited from that, they've used the money to help stay in the classroom, it's given more professionalism to the teaching coordinates, one thing that has helped us make some progress in our state through Republican and Democratic administrations over the last ten years--
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Shanker, let me ask you to respond to one other point Bob Dole made, which had to do with the political influence of teachers unions, and essentially saying it's too great, too much money comes from the teachers unions to the Democratic Party, there's too much political involvement. By my count, you all--UM, NEA, together, are going to have 13 to 15 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention next week. Why?
MR. SHANKER: Well, you know, that's a very recent development. That did not happen until the national political parties got into the business of vouchers and tuition tax credits, and things like that. Before that, we never endorsed presidential candidates, before 1976. And I think the NEA was the same thing. And in quite a few states, we support Republican governors; we support Republican legislators; we support Republican senators, so that right now because of the fact that the last few Republican presidential candidates have decided to make this a political issue, and those of us in public education feel that when you start financing all the schools, of all the different sectarian groups, and language groups and racial groups and religious groups, and everything else. That's the beginning of the end of the country.
I was thrilled by Bob Dole's speech where he said this is one America and one country, and he talked about the dangers of breaking it apart, and then he went on to make the proposal which has the greatest danger of all of breaking it apart, and that's to have all of our youngsters start moving to schools based on their race and on religion and they're private schools, and we don't have a common curriculum. And that's what we're concerned about, and that's why, by and large, we've been in one party at the national level. But at the local and state level, we're very bipartisan.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that level of involvement and the money will help you forestall all efforts to get school choice?
MR. SHANKER: Well, it will help to forestall it at the national level, but of course this is also happening at the state level. There will be referenda. There will be state legislatures. So you can't--you can't forestall it by just handling presidential elections. But also, I think, you know that when it comes to the presidential election, if you look at the kind of cuts that the Republican Congress proposed to the President last year in education and training programs and all sorts of programs for children, and what the President did with his vetoes and his insistence, if you were a teacher, whether you're a member of a union or not, and if you cared for the children that you teach, there'd be absolutely no question in your mind as to who you'd be supporting and which Congress you'd want and who you'd want in there as President if you care about the future of public education in the country.
MARGARET WARNER: We're actually out of time. Governor, a quick rebuttal, quick comment.
GOV. ALEXANDER: It ought to be a political issue. If you care about education and you like the way it is, vote for Bill Clinton. If you want high standards and different kinds of schools, and especially if you're middle income and poor, if you want a chance with some money to take your child to the same kinds of schools that people with money have, then you should vote for Bob Dole and the Republicans.
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
GOV. ALEXANDER: We're trying to change.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, gentlemen, very much. We'll have to leave it there.