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Issue & Debate: Education Reform

October 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, two different perspectives on how education is being debated in this presidential campaign. Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, teaches at Occidental College in California. He also is education editor of the Electronic Policy Network on the World Wide Web. Eric Hanushek is a professor of economics in public policy at the University of Rochester, with an emphasis on education issues. A former deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office, he is also the author of “Making Schools Work.” Welcome both you.

Mr. Hanushek, starting with you, do you think this campaign is coming to grips with the really important issue in education today?

ERIC HANUSHEK, University of Rochester: (Rochester) Well, quite unfortunately, I don’t think that it is. We find that most of the debate about education is really symbolic debate. Questions like should we have a Department of Education or not have very little to do with the provision of education in this country. They make for great symbolism and great campaign speeches, but they have very little to do with whether we are going to improve the performance of our schools.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rothstein, do you agree, basically a symbolic debate?

RICHARD ROTHSTEIN, Occidental College: (Los Angeles) Well, I certainly agree with Prof. Hanushek that the debate over whether the Department of Education should continue is symbolic. Whether you take the programs of the Department and redistribute them throughout the federal government or continue them in the Department makes no difference to the actual programs.

The real issue is whether the public school system is the failure that Sen. Dole assumes and that needs correction by a voucher program. I don’t think the public school system is a failure. I think it’s been remarkably successful in both the recent past and the distant past, and, therefore, the crisis doesn’t exist for which he’s trying to find a solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hanushek, where you come down on this question of whether the public schools are in that kind of crisis Bob Dole says they are?

MR. HANUSHEK: Well, I’m not sure crisis is the right word, but we certainly have a very, very serious problem with our schools. We have found that education is extraordinarily important to everybody who works in the economy. Technology is moving toward more education, yet our schools just aren’t keeping up. The performance of our schools by all measures has just been flat for a quarter of a century even though we’ve over-doubled spending on schools over that same period of time. So we have both a financial crisis in schools, and we have a performance problem.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you, Mr. Hanushek, what do you think of this voucher proposal of Bob Dole? Is that the way to go, to bring choice and competition in the system?

MR. HANUSHEK: Well, I think it’s one of the possible things that we should be trying. What we lack right now in our schools is any incentives at all for the people in schools to bring about higher achievement of our students. There is nothing that rests upon the good performance of our students in our current schools. Vouchers and choice have just one possible mechanism for providing incentives because the idea behind vouchers is that if parents don’t like the score they’re getting, their kids are moved away, and then there’s no support for bad schools.

At the same time, we don’t have a lot of information on how to structure vouchers and how to do it well, so that we don’t have a lot of undesirable outcomes at the same time. So I just view that as one of a whole series of possible incentive programs that we should be trying. We just have to relate performance incentives more to performance of students if we are going to succeed, and that is not really being discussed very much in this campaign. The voucher plan of Mr. Dole, frankly, is also just a very weak kind of voucher plan. If you’re taking it seriously, $500 or $1,000, if you add a state part to it, is very small, and it’s not going to reach very many people.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rothstein, a little more on your views on the voucher idea.

MR. ROTHSTEIN: Well, the problem with vouchers is that especially a voucher plan such as Sen. Dole has proposed, is if you take vouchers and give them to parents to use, those parents who use them are likely going to be the most motivated parents, the ones who are most interested in their children’s education, and you’re going to cream out of the public schools the most motivated parents, leaving the rest of the parents and the rest of the children there without the benefit of more highly motivated, more highly educated children. Everybody who’s been involved in a public school knows that if you have a teacher who’s not doing well, it only takes one or two parents in that classroom to complain to the principal to get a change. If you take those one or two parents out of the public schools and give them a voucher to attend private schools, especially since there’s no evidence that their children are going to do any better in private schools than they do in public schools, what you’re doing is you’re condemning the children who remain to have an education without the benefit of those motivated and highly-educated parents.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hanushek, what about that point?

MR. HANUSHEK: Oh, I wish it were the case that just a couple of complaining teacher–parents could radically change our schools but there’s just no evidence that that’s the case. It works in a few small instances, but it certainly does not–is not the common occurrence. We have a problem of performance in the schools that’s not being corrected by a couple of parents going in and correcting. Now there is a problem about creaming off the best students and segregation in voucher schools and a variety of other things that I think are, indeed, serious, and there are things that we have to address. That’s why I say I don’t think we’re ready for wholesale voucher plans because we just don’t know enough about how to control the positive forces of vouchers without getting these negative aspects. But it’s still not something that we would just eliminate on the basis that the people who are most interested in education might go off and get a good education. That’s, it seems like, kind of a silly argument.

MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Rothstein, what about the President’s alternative, which is–he says he believes in public school choice, that is, giving parents the ability to move around within a school system, as long as they stayed within the public schools, would that bring the competition without the downside you see?

MR. ROTHSTEIN: Well, no, it does have a downside as well. You have to be very careful how you implement a public school choice program. If, for example, you take a school district and you create a couple of magnet schools in that school district, the children who go to those magnet schools are going to be–to use a term I used before–creamed off the neighborhood schools, and those neighborhoods schools are going to be worse off for it. But you can have a public school choice system which, for example, requires everybody to choose, turns the entire system into one of magnet schools, and that kind of a situation you mitigate somewhat the problems that I was describing.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me turn to another one of Sen. Dole’s ideas. And I know you both–or at least Mr. Hanushek, you said you thought this was symbolic, that is, abolishing the Department of Education. However, what Bob Dole seems to be saying is take that $28 billion a year and go ahead and block grant it back to the states. Mr. Hanushek, what about that idea, why would the states spend it better? Or do you not agree with it?

MR. HANUSHEK: Well, I mean, my presumption is that many of the current federal programs would remain, whether we have a Department or not. The federal government has an important role in achieving equity and trying to support disadvantaged children across the nation. And I suspect that those are going to be continued no matter whether we have a Department of Education or not. I think that the basic argument has some real logic to it, and that is that we ought to get decision-making closer to where education is going on. Now I’m not sure that that’s at the state level and I’m not convinced that that works unless we have strong sets of performance incentives. We’ve done a lot to decentralize decision-making in large school districts now, and haven’t gotten much for it as far as I can tell largely because we decentralized some of the decision-making but we don’t hold people in the schools accountable for results. And we don’t provide any real incentives for results. So I think that the same holds if we just distribute money to the states unless we are confident that they will act in a way that rewards good performance.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rothstein, what do you think of that idea?

MR. ROTHSTEIN: Well, I think that the one area that I disagree with Prof. Hanushek on is when he says that school performance has been flat. In fact, the most dramatic success of schools in the last 20 years has been in the area of bringing minority test scores, minority student test scores, much closer to the level of white test scores, and that’s largely the result of the Title I program that the federal government has implemented which gives additional money to school districts that have large numbers of minority and poor children.

MARGARET WARNER: And you’re saying that’s done through the Department of Education.

MR. ROTHSTEIN: It’s federal money that’s distributed to the states, and then to school districts and used in schools that have large numbers of poor and minority children. As a result of those programs, for example, the dropout rates were black students in this country are now virtually identical with those of whites. There’s no difference any longer. Test scores–the gap has been cut nearly in half. So we’ve been phenomenally successful in the use of federal money for this targeted purpose in education, and it would be a real tragedy if that program were eliminated.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s briefly also look at one of the major ideas that the President has, which is this–either a tax deduction for college tuition or tax credit for community college tuition. Mr. Rothstein, what do you–what would be the impact of that on education, access to education do you think?

MR. ROTHSTEIN: Well, it would certainly dramatically increase access to education. Again, it’s a very complicated issue. We don’t know have a shortage of college graduates or even community college trained people so far as the jobs that the economy needs goes. We don’t have a skills shortage as many people mistakenly believe. But if you universalized access to higher education, you’d certainly make access to better jobs more equitable in society, would make it available equally to the poor as well as to the wealthy, to minorities as well as to whites, and that would be a tremendous advance. The second point is that preparation for jobs is not the only function that schools should perform, and even if we do now have sufficient number of workers with college educations or with community college educations in the work force, we don’t ever have enough people with good educations to participate in our democracy, to ennoble their lives and to enrich their lives, and so for that reason, any steps we can take to universalize education further is a positive step, in my view.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hanushek, what do you think of that idea?

MR. HANUSHEK: Well, there’s not a lot of evidence that shortage of funds to go to community college is keeping a lot of people out. I view this more as an election ploy, in large part, because it’s a large transfer to middle-class parents who are sending their children to college in record numbers right now. I don’t think that that’s quite the way to do it, if you’re concerned about access and concerned about getting more people into college. I think something like Mr. Clinton’s 1992 proposal of income contingent loans would be much better. That says that you give a person a loan if they want it and need the money to go to college, and then the student repays that on the basis of the income that they subsequently get. That seems to be more equitable and to provide more of the incentives that are nominally behind this plan, which is really to transfer money to the middle class.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly before we go, do you think the outcome of this election will have a major impact on education in this country?

MR. HANUSHEK: I don’t think that it’ll have a huge impact. The federal government is a minor player in elementary and secondary education and in higher education. The federal government could provide a lot of leadership but it’s not doing that right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rothstein, very briefly.

MR. ROTHSTEIN: Well, I think if President Clinton is reelected, we’ll continue the slow progress that we’ve made in improving student achievement. If Dole is elected, then I think–and actually in the programs he’s talking about, then we will take a big step backward.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.