Only about 7 percent or 8 percent of the money that's spent on public
education in this country comes from the federal government. How
important is the federal government to the future of public education?
Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president and
trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation where his primary focus is the reform
of primary and secondary schooling. He was an assistant secretary of education
in the Reagan administration and is co-author of Charter Schools in Action:
Renewing Public Education
. . . It's not a huge player obviously, financially, compared to the states,
cities, and communities. In some domains it's dominant, like research and
statistics and civil rights enforcement, where the federal role is the main
role. Also, the bully pulpit of the president and secretary of education can
make a lot of noise that influences the national debate about this on a larger
scale than the federal programs. And the amount of federal regulation and
manipulation exceeds the seven or eight percent. If you ask a state or local
superintendent to what extent is their job shaped by federal priorities, they
wouldn't say seven or eight percent. They would probably say 20 or 30 percent. So
it's bigger than it looks just in dollar terms.
It seems that suddenly there's a big debate about public education. The
presidential campaigns are debating this issue now. What do you make of
I don't think the big debate is sudden. It goes at least back to 1983 and the
so-called "Nation at Risk" report, and it actually goes back farther. We've
been debating education and education reform in this country, and actually
working in various ways to try to do something about it for a while now. But
this is looking like the first presidential campaign in my memory where
education has loomed large as a presidential campaign issue. That's new. The
debate itself, I think, is not new.
Why do we have presidential candidates talking big-time about education? I
think there are two answers. One is that the voters have made real clear that
in a time of general peace and prosperity, this is one of the foremost things
on their minds. This is one of the top concerns that . . . any candidate in
his or her right mind would want to respond to what voters are interested in.
Secondly, for the first time in my memory, we've got a Republican candidate
with a real track record in education, and a considerable knowledge of the
subject, who wants to talk about this. In the past, typically, the Democrat
has wanted to talk about education, and the Republican has sort of had to.
This time, I think we actually have the tables a little bit turned. We have a
Republican who would rather talk about education than almost anything else, and
a Democrat without actually very much of a track record of his own who might
just as soon avoid the issue if he could, but he knows he can't. In any case,
he has the Clinton administration's record that he is running on, and that is a
track record, even if Al Gore doesn't have a separate track record of his own.
I want to ask you about vouchers. There was as an opinion piece in the
New York Times that basically said the voucher issue
could be an Achilles heel for the Gore campaign, that he was vulnerable on this
issue. Do you think that that is an issue on which Gore is politically
Gore, who is deaf on vouchers, is vulnerable in some communities that are
beginning to think that vouchers are the route to freedom and success, notably,
urban minority communities. Now, will urban minority communities turn against
the Democratic candidate over this issue? I don't know. I'm not a good enough
political analyst to know that. But I do think that as the low-income and
minority opinion of vouchers has become pretty strongly positive, and as the
urban school systems have begun to feel more and more like a prison, like a
trap, Democrats who are hostile to vouchers may one day discover they have to
pick between the minority urban residents and the teachers' unions. That's a
very painful choice for a Democratic candidate.
Clearly, the teachers' unions heavily back Mr. Gore. To what extent are the
teachers' unions really still an obstacle to fundamental education reform in
There are a lot of obstacles to fundamental education reform in this country.
A lot of vested interests and large interest groups like the status quo, and
don't much want any fundamental shifts in the ground rules. But the teachers'
unions are the 800-pound gorilla. They are the largest, the wealthiest, the
most populous, the ones with the large numbers of votes, the big war chests,
and things like that. They are joined in these matters by the school boards'
association and the administrators' association and the teachers' college
association and the textbook publishers' association. We can go on down a
very, very, very long list. But none of them has the size or the wealth or the
clout of the unions, especially when the two unions agree with each other on
something. . . .
In your view, what needs to be changed? If you go back to that "Nation at
Risk" report, the report said that public education in general in this country
was in a crisis--that it was not serving our students, regardless of what class
or suburban or urban districts they were in. Do you think that's still true?
Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in
I think we're doing a pretty mediocre job as a whole. There are some beacons
of quality, but they don't serve many kids. When you look at the international
comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best
students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in
things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools
of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our
suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people
attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know
they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of
suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.
If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say
that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.
I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't
particularly want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they
think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling
them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to
suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either.
While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I
think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of
mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working
very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on
the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time.
We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's
hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a
thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means
that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up
or ship out." It's one of the reasons why the standards-based reform movement
is beginning to produce a kind of backlash around the country. It is beginning
to say, "Hey, we're serious, and if you can't pass this test, you can't get a
high school diploma."
On the issue of standards and accountability, don't a lot of Democrats and
Republicans see eye-to-eye?
One thing that makes this whole political education issue complicated is that
there's a lot of convergence on a number of specifics within the field of
education reform. Standards, tests and accountability have a lot of Republicans
and a lot of Democrats all saying, "Yes, this is the way to go," or "This is
part of the way to go."
What do you think about Governor Bush's record in Texas, specifically in
these terms? He raised teachers' pay, and the teachers' unions down there say
they basically like him. They got along with him. He imposed and kept going a
system of standards and accountability. He's putting more money into
construction of school buildings. He's emphasizing public schools, and when
vouchers were proposed, he was very lukewarm, and didn't push for them. There
are no state voucher programs or city voucher programs in Texas, just one
that's privately funded. In a way, doesn't that sound like a kind of Al Gore
record as governor of Texas?
Texas has a lot of charter schools, and they're pretty free, and Texas does
have a fair number of these privately funded voucher programs, not just the one
in San Antonio. I believe these are operating in several cities in the state.
But as governor, Bush has done what governors do, which is to have standard
tests and accountability, to try to improve the schools and try to create some
options for kids. No, he did not fall on the sword over vouchers. His brother
in Florida has one of the more interesting voucher programs in the country.
But George W. didn't make that his lead issue. He has, however, done a good
job with the issues that he's embraced. I think that the data show it.
Nobody's going to claim that a big complicated state like Texas has a perfect
record here. But I'm especially struck by the degree to which minority
students in Texas now lead the nation among minority students. They're not
where they ought to be, but they're doing better than minority students in
anybody else's state, and I think that's pretty impressive. . . .
Bush sends his twin daughters to a public high school.
Well, that's better than Gore did. There's a seriousness in Bush. I've been
in a room with him two or three times as he's been talking about education, and
he's got a lot of passion and a lot of knowledge in this area. I think he's
sincere, and motivated. His record is not a kind of classic hard-right
pure-marketplace type of Republican record. When you look around, actually,
very few of the Republican governors have those kinds of records anyway. Even
the ones who have pushed pretty hard for school choice have also pushed for
standards and tests and accountability and things like that. The sort of
hard-right agenda is more often found among a handful of congressmen than it is
among people who are actually responsible for running states.
Or businesspeople like Steve Forbes, who wanted to privatize education more
or push more for choice.
That's right. That would have been a clear Forbes agenda item. Governors have
some variation about the kinds of school choice they embrace, and some
variation about the kinds of accountability mechanisms. But really there's
quite a lot of bipartisan convergence among governors around the set of
propositions as to what to do about elementary and secondary education.
This issue of Gore sending his children all to private schools here in the
District has become something that's now been mentioned in several campaign
appearances. But on the other side of that, isn't it also true . . . that no
politician wants to send his or her daughter to a public school in the District
If memory serves, Amy Carter went to a public school in the District of
Columbia. That's the last one I can remember. Of course, that might have also
been the last president with school-age children, other than Chelsea
When people say they're in favor of school choice, it's not hypocritical to
send your kids to private school. What I think galls a lot of folks is to
profess that poor people have to keep their kids in the public schools, but
"because I am fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to St. Alban's or
Sidwell Friends or National Cathedral School, I am free to do so, because I
just happen to be lucky and rich and powerful. But you poor folks, stick with
the public schools, we don't want to give you any options." That's
hypocritical. . . .
At present, some 85 to 90 percent of American schoolchildren go to public
school for kindergarten through twelfth grade. If you had your way, what would
public education look like in the United States?
It would be different in two big respects. One is that the academic standards
and tests and accountability would be very solid. We'd have really good
standards, we'd have sensible tests, and we'd have real consequences, not just
for kids, but also for grownups.
Would there be national tests?
I've never been against national tests. In fact, I was one of three sort of
Republican education experts who was quoted in favor of national tests when
Bill Clinton proposed them. But that, I'm afraid, is a dead issue. The
Clinton administration bungled it badly in all sorts of ways, and a bunch of
no-nothings in Congress made it worse. The upshot is that it's politically
just a dead issue for now, so I think we're talking state tests, whether we
like it or not. I'd have solid academic standards, good tests aligned to those
standards, and real consequences, both the warm, fuzzy kind that reward
success, and the less pleasant kind that intervene in the event of failure.
I'd have them applied to all the grownups in the system, not just to the kids.
Now that's one whole strand of change.
A separate strand of change that I think is very important is that all kids
would have more educational choices, whether they are more diverse public
schools or lots of charter schools or virtual schools or after-schools, summer
schools. You would not be sort of stuck in just one school without options.
And even within the one school you might have four mini-schools, for example,
with different flavors, different styles, and different curricular emphasis.
Are vouchers the cutting edge issue between Bush and Gore?
You're going to find that the voucher issue is the clearest political
difference between the two candidates and the two parties. That's the thing
where it'll be easy to hear disagreement about. But behind that is something
of a difference in what I'd call people's theory of change. What ultimately is
going to bring about different behavior and different results in American
schools? Not what would you like to see different--but what's going to cause
things to change? What's going to cause people to alter their behavior? I
really do think that, at the end of the day, Al Gore's theory of change rests
on a regulatory model. It rests on people in Washington telling you what to do
differently and checking to see whether you've done it. And I really do think
that George W. Bush's theory of change rests to a great extent on the consumers
and the locals having an improved consciousness about what needs to happen, and
having options and greater control at the local level, with a kind of audit
outside to see whether improvement is really occurring.
I really think that if you go an inch below the surface--and this may never
turn up in debates because it's a little complicated--you'll find that Gore
believes that Washington is going to bring about the change. Bush thinks that
Washington may facilitate some, but that finally it's going to come about
because parents and kids and teachers have more options and because local
people have greater responsibility. . . .
Gore's model here rests on a kind of central planning notion of how you bring
about diversity. It doesn't rest on entrepreneurialism, on energy, on
creativity, on the marketplaces at all. It really rests on some assistant
superintendent for long-range planning making a list of offerings that they're
going to provide, and then a series of federal enforcers coming to make sure
that each of those offerings conforms to about ten different federal laws and
requirements. This is not an entrepreneurial view of change. This is a
top-down, corporatist, big-government view of change. I do think he wants
change, and I know he believes that that should include more diversity of
offerings of education. What's going to bring it about in the Gore worldview
are those central planners, and in the Bush worldview, it's entrepreneurs. . .
I'm from California. One of the people pushing charter schools very
strongly these days, in part because his Oakland school district is so awful,
is Jerry Brown. You've been around this issue for a long time. I know you're
a Republican. Doesn't this issue cut across a lot of party categories
Part of what I like about charter schools is the degree to which it's neither
fish nor fowl. Thus, it ends up with quite a lot of bipartisan support that
cuts in interesting ways and interesting directions. Charter schools are never
going to satisfy school choice purists, because they're still government
schools, vulnerable to bureaucratic and legislative mischief. On the other
hand, charter schools are far from satisfying the Establishment, the
bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all top-down types. As a result, charter schools
are a kind of a hybrid here. They do have fans and promoters in both parties
and across a pretty broad middle of the political spectrum. I think they're a
pretty interesting idea. However, they are not yet any kind of cure-all for
what ails American schools. We have 1,700 charter schools, but we still have
85,000 traditional public schools.
We've seen some terrific charter schools--very well run, very innovative.
And we've seen some bad charter schools that have been closed down in Texas and
Four percent of all charter schools that have ever opened their doors have
closed or been closed--60 schools, by my count, as of today. This is a good
thing. This suggests the charter accountability world is real. If you run a
charter school that nobody wants to attend, or one that fails to deliver the
results it promised, or that messes up badly and runs away with the money, for
example, you don't have a right to continue operating. What do we typically do
with a failed public school? We don't close it down. We spend more money, on
the theory that lack of resources must have led to the failure. . . .
Let me be clear. Charter schools are not per se always good schools. I've
been in some charter schools that I wouldn't send my worst enemy's kids to.
But I also need to say that I have yet to find a loopy idea or stupid practice
in a charter school that I haven't earlier seen in regular public schools, and
frequently in private schools too. The goofiness is not a peculiar possession
of charter schools, either.
Bush is pushing the idea of, to use another jargon term: "portability" for
Title I. You know what that is. Is that a good thing?
Title I is the biggest federal program. It's about $8 billion a year. It's
meant to help poor kids to learn to read and write, to catch up with rich kids.
It's 35 years old, and for 35 years it has been a complete failure. Title I is
the biggest failure in the educational arsenal. It has closed no gaps, and it
has caused no gains. So the question is whether it needs a fundamental
overhaul or just more of the same. The administration is plumping for more of
the same. Some of the Republicans are pushing for a fundamental overhaul.
One form that a fundamental overhaul could take is to take that six or eight or
nine hundred dollars per poor kid and let the family decide where to spend it.
It doesn't have to be their day school. It could be at an after-school
program. It could be at another school. It could be for something over the
Internet. And certainly, if they moved their kid in pursuit of a better
education and a better school, why shouldn't the federal money go with that
kid? He's still poor, he's still disadvantaged, but the way the Title I
program works today, the money stays in the school even if the kid leaves.
This is just nuts. So portability, strapping the money on the kid's back so
that it goes where he goes makes really good sense for Title I, and for a lot
of other federal programs.
But that's not nearly enough money to pay for a child's education.
It's not meant to be a full tuition payment. It's meant to provide
supplemental services. So if you go from a school that has a so-called Title I
program into a school that doesn't have a so-called Title I program, your $800
might buy you an after-school tutor, or a Saturday morning program. The point
is to help kids catch up, not to pay their full tuition.
Is that the main reason why I should vote for Governor Bush for president as
far as education is concerned?
I will probably vote for Governor Bush within the education domain. We have to
learn more about what both these people stand for in other areas. But I like
his education record because he's actually figured out what's wrong with the
system, and he's done some serious things to try to turn it around on his watch
in Texas. That includes the whole standards thing, but it also includes a lot
more choices and a lot more consumer power. I think this is a pretty
persuasive record, and I compare it with the Clinton administration, or the
Clinton-Gore administration's track record in education, which I find really
pretty disappointing in spite of all the big talk. There are perhaps some
genuine, sincere good ideas. I don't find it a compelling record.
what do the candidates say? ·
how bad are public schools? ·
is "choice" the answer? ·
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