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Bush’s Education Plans

January 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Is there new common ground on education? To discuss that, we are joined by key education lawmakers: Republican John Boehner of Ohio, who’s chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee; that committee’s top Democrat, George Miller of California; also, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union; and Chester Finn, a former Reagan administration education official, who is president of the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank here in Washington. Congressman Boehner, how will the president… how should the president go about selling this plan?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, I think that the first thing the president has done is to reach out to members from both political parties. This began over a month ago with a bipartisan group from both the House and Senate in Austin. There have been numerous discussions since then with members. And I think that we have — and you’ve seen today — a chorus of members, again, both sides of the political aisle, in basic support of the president’s concept. While there may be differences here and there, the focus… to move the focus back to primarily to disadvantaged students I think is receiving broad support.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Miller, both you and Mr. Boehner were at that White House meeting this morning. And Ted Kennedy was also there and came out and said there was broad and meaningful agreement on this plan. Should we be surprised by that?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: Well, I don’t know that you should be that surprised by it. I think that the president has outlined a plan that has at its core a very strong element of accountability, a very strong effort to close the gap between rich and poor children in this country and majority and minority children in this country and to hold the system accountable for its performance in schools for the quality of teachers that it puts in the classroom so that parents will know whether or not their children, in fact, are getting the education that they believe they should have. And I think there is, as we have seen today, there is a great bipartisan agreement on that effort. We’ve been working on this in the Congress and the House. We had some very tough battles in the last Congress over the issues of accountability and teacher quality and between the administration and some of us in Congress, and the Republicans and others. So, I think there’s a lot of groundwork that has been laid for this effort. And I think the president wisely saw that.

GWEN IFILL: What about, Mr. Miller, what about this plan brings Republicans and Democrats closer to the… to common ground on the notion of what the federal government’s role should be?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: I think because, if you look over the past, we’ve spent over $150 billion in this system and none of us here in Washington can accept the results that we’ve gotten out of that system. And I think we understand now that there are some basic tools that have to be put in place so that we give those children who are among the most disadvantaged in our country, who go to school in some of the poorer schools that they, in fact, get a very real opportunity in education. All of the evidence suggests that if these children have a qualified teacher, have good curriculum and they go to school in a decent school building, their chances of learning are just as good as everybody else’s, but today they’re being passed over; they’re being left behind; and they’re dropping out. And we can’t accept that as a nation and I think the president has made that clear, certainly in our meeting he was very forceful on this point. And I think members of Congress on both sides of the aisle believe that also.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Boehner, we know there will be areas of disagreement, which we’ll get to in a moment. But how did we get to this point where Republicans and Democrats seem to be singing from the same script?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think the achievement gap that we continue to see grow is alarming. We’ve had the strongest economy over the last ten years in our nation’s history. And yet the achievement gap between students in wealthier suburbs and those in inner cities, between black and white, that achievement gap has continued to widen. This is a crisis. And it has to be dealt with in ways that are going to work because what we’ve tried over the last 15 years, in all honesty, has produced no results. We are letting children sit in school buildings, in bad schools, and we’re dooming them… and we can’t look the other way any longer. And I think that’s what’s bringing the Congress — both sides of the aisle together — to say it’s time for real action and it’s time for us to refocus our efforts back to the traditional federal role.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Chase, if we were able to sum up what the objections might be, which we’ve already heard some of today, it would be disagreement over vouchers, over accountability — what is accountability — over spending. Do any of those things seem to you as a deal breaker?

BOB CHASE: Let me preface it by saying there’s much in the president’s proposal that’s very positive. We’re particularly pleased to see this be the first piece of legislation that the president is putting forth. That goes for everyone involved in education, I’m sure. There are problems with the issue of vouchers. There’s no question about it. If we go back to the reason for schools and understand that it’s to provide quality educational opportunities for all kids and we look at the results of the voucher experiments in Cleveland and in Milwaukee, we don’t see any substantial difference in the achievement of students in the voucher schools and the regular schools.

If we want to attack the low- performing schools — which, in fact, we do want to attack and we’ll be hopefully working very closely with both sides of the aisle on this question — then I think we have to attack those schools, do the things that we need to do to bring those schools up to the level that they should be at and not look at putting in place another proposal that we know won’t work in enhancing student achievement, that being vouchers. There are a whole host of things out there that we know work. We’ve seen them work in places like Edgewood in Texas. We’ve seen them work in the ABC program in North Carolina. What we should be doing is looking at those programs, taking from those programs the positive elements, the positive components, so that we can, in fact, turn schools around.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Finn — excuse me, we’ll be back to that in a moment. Mr. Finn, what about the idea that vouchers don’t work, as Mr. Chase has just said, that, in fact, giving parents the opportunity to take their children out of failing schools depending on who decides they’re failing is not the best way of beginning to address the problem of underachieving students?

CHESTER FINN: Well, let’s note first that the voucher piece of this is a very, very tiny piece of a very big and wide-ranging and comprehensive education reform plan. It’s being blown out of all proportion actually by its opponents. This is a public school accountability strategy that the president has proposed, and if it works, there actually won’t be any vouchers under it. Vouchers are sort of the last resort three years into an accountability plan that doesn’t even start for three years. In other words, if six years from now an incorrigibly failing public school hasn’t been helped by interventions, hasn’t been helped by the public school choice component that’s coming along, then and only then does this voucher provision get triggered. Honestly, any school that with really five years of warning and all these other interventions cannot get its act together doesn’t deserve to have its students kept against their will. If there’s a better school that’s willing to take them in. But this is not likely to happen. Much, if at all, this is not a voucher program the president has laid before us. This is a public school accountability program with a little tiny voucher component as sort of the last resort.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Finn, excuse me. Who decides who is accountable? You talk about a public school accountability program, vouchers as a system, punishment of last resort. Who decides? Parents, local schools, the federal government?

CHESTER FINN: Fundamentally, the state sets up a standards and testing system that results in identifying schools that are not meeting their annual performance gains for the low-income kids in the federal Title I program. Each state will have annual gains that it promises to meet and that its schools are supposed to meet. And these will be measured on this testing program. And if the school doesn’t meet its measurable annual gains, then it’s in trouble. And the first year that it’s found to be in trouble by the state, it gets help from the state. The second year, the public school choice provision comes to bear and the third year — and only then, and this is all after a three-year phase-in by the way — the voucher piece clicks in.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Miller, do you think that as Mr. Finn just said that, in fact, vouchers is a boogie man here, it’s a red herring, that it’s not going to be a deal breaker, or is there enough discontent in the Democratic Caucus that that could derail this entire education plan?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: I think the issue and the battle over vouchers is so serious that it’s eventually not going to be part of this bill. I think there’s so much good in this bill and Mr. Lieberman’s bill, in other proposals that will be made and there’s so much agreement about the absolute urgency that we get on with this that we, in fact, provide these schools and these districts and these individuals with the resources to have the good, qualified teachers, to have the good curriculum, to have a good education of our children that eventually vouchers is going to drop out of this. As Mr. Finn has said, it’s a tiny piece of this. And it certainly isn’t worth risking the kind of cooperation that’s on the horizon here, the commitment of this president, recognizing that this cannot be done without additional resources, that these schools and these programs have got to have the resources to do this. This is our first real chance in many years to make a major corrective action. And I don’t think the Republicans and I don’t think the Democrats and the House or the Senate are going to want to scuttle this over vouchers. We may have to fight that fight another day. We may have a vote on it in this Congress. I suspect there’s a very strong bipartisan coalition against vouchers. We ought to be about fixing America’s schools first.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s see what Mr. Boehner has to say about that. Is this a negotiable issue that you can just take off the table if it doesn’t work?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Gwen, there needs to be a safety valve. As Chester pointed out, once you get through this five-year period, if you’ve got children that are trapped in a failing school, what do we do — ignore it — doom their future? We don’t want to do that. There has to be a safety valve. And the safety valve in the Bush plan is to have the voucher plan, something that frankly I have supported in the past. But I can support another type of safety valve. I’ll talk to George Miller about what are the options? But there has to be a way to ensure that that child gets an education. Maybe it’s we shut the school down and fire the teachers and force the children into another school. But we’ve got to do something to encourage schools to improve. We need to help them improve, but at the end of the day it’s about the child having an opportunity to get… to get a good education to participate in a chance at the American dream which they won’t have if we leave them in that school.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Chase, does that bother you when you hear people talking about shutting down schools, rather than finding ways — if they can’t find other ways to make….

BOB CHASE: I think, first of all, there are other ways to make them better. I think we have proof of that. And we’ve done it and we know how to do it, and we know what works. The NEA right now has just put together a project as it relates to low-performing schools. We have just allocated out of our budget several hundred thousand dollars in an attempt to help train our members at the local level to do what’s necessary to help them turn these schools around. It bothers me when I hear someone say close them down and fire the teachers because there may be a whole host of reasons why school X isn’t working right now. Let’s look at it; let’s see what we can do. Let’s approach this from the perspective of working together in an attempt to make sure that all children are receiving a quality education.

One of the things that I thought was problematical in the president’s proposal when it came to vouchers, for example, was the fact that it specifically exempts parochial and non-public schools from testing requirements. If, in fact, you want to determine whether or not a school is a low-performing school based upon test results in the public sector and allow those moneys then to go to other venues in the private sector, for example, and then don’t hold those same schools accountable in the same way, I think we have problems. But I also believe that during the discussions that will take place as this piece of legislation moves forward along with the Lieberman proposal today, that we’ll be able to sit down and work out these differences in an attempt to ensure that all the kids in this country have an opportunity for quality public education.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Finn we can’t talk about this issue without talking about one of the other big differences which is money. This plan is remarkably less than Democrats have asked for in spending for school construction and any other number of other issues. Do you think there is any middle ground to be reached on how much we need to spend for this to happen?

CHESTER FINN: I’m sure there’s a middle ground to be reached. I think the administration would say to you that they didn’t put dollar figures in today’s proposal on purpose because they have a budget coming out for the whole government in a couple of weeks and that they expect their education spending figures and all their other spending figures to be in the budget. I don’t think this was a dollar and cents proposal today. I think that we have that still to look forward to. But, you know, the Education Department’s budget rose from, I believe, $28 billion to $46 billion in the last eight years. It’s going to keep rising. I think everybody is expecting to spend more money on education. I’m sure an agreement can be reached about what level of spending there ought to be. I think the big issue — and this is really the issue the president joined so clearly today — is are we getting value for money? Is this money buying us any results? As I believe Chairman Boehner said, we’re 35 years into some of these federal programs and literally hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, with mighty little to show for it. We’re really now needing to focus on the effectiveness and productivity of these programs, not just on how much is poured in the front end.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Finn, can I ask you to think back to when you were a member of the Reagan Education Department at a time when people were talking about abolishing the federal role in education entirely and give us some sort of sense about how we came to where we are today.

CHESTER FINN: Well there’s no doubt that George W. Bush has proposed a muscular, vigorous, federal role, intends to take advantage of all the leverage at his and Washington’s command to try to make changes in education. I think that a couple of things have happened since my time in the Reagan administration. One is that abolishing the federal role in education didn’t turn out to be either good policy or good politics. And I think Republicans found that out in ’95 and ’96. Another thing that’s happened is, frankly, Bill Clinton has accustomed the United States to a large, almost sprawling, federal role. I have my reservations about whether that was a good idea or not but the fact is it has happened.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’re going to have to leave that as a final thought. Thank you all, gentlemen, for joining us.