the battle over school choice

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interview: william galston


Galston is a professor and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Adminstration and is serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency.
I am a professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland at College Park. I am also a director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, which is a research center here at the University, which is a mostly owned subsidiary of the School of Public Affairs, but an old institution. We're heading toward our 25th anniversary. It's filled with people who are interested in philosophy and public life. Which is a rare combination. So that's our business. And, in addition to those two academic titles, I am a senior advisor on domestic policy issues to the Gore campaign.

With that background and that preparation, let me start you with the broadest of all possible questions for our program, which is that, back in the Reagan era, in the early 80s, there was a report called The Nation at Risk about public education in America. And since then, in all these years, there has been a lot of talk about a crisis in public education, especially from conservatives--that public education is a disaster in this country, that we're way behind other countries, that we're in serious trouble. What's your own view of the state of public education in this country?

The report, Nation at Risk, perhaps the most important document on education reform issued in the 20th century, came out in the early 1980s, at the end of a roughly 15-year period of uninterrupted decline in American public education. And that report, Nation at Risk had a significant positive impact on public education in this country. The committee, the commission that put together Nation at Risk for example, identified what it called a new basic curriculum. In the early 1980s only about 14% of graduating US high school seniors had gone through the basic elements of that curriculum. About ten years later, that percentage had tripled to 42%. So we have made progress and we've continued to make slow progress through the 1990s.

Where are we today: Is the US system of public education as a whole in crisis? The answer to that question, I believe, is no. Today it would be more accurate to say that we have two systems of public education, not one. The first of them is based principally, though not entirely, in the suburbs of this country and [in] some of the wealthier urban jurisdictions and districts. That is, a public school system that could be better and should be better. In many respects it is mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced industrial nations. But it is not failing its students.

The second system of public education, which is based principally in poorer urban and rural areas, is indeed in crisis. Too many of the students in those schools are dropping out well before high school graduation. Too many are receiving high school diplomas that do not certify academic confidence in basic subjects. Too many are being left unprepared for the world of work. Too many are being left unprepared to go on to higher education and advanced technical training. Those schools are indeed in crisis and they require emergency treatment....] Governor Bush on educational reform in Texas reminds me of the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. In fact, Governor Bush has done little more than continue the programs of his predecessors. There are important gaps in resources between many of the wealthier jurisdictions and many of the poorer jurisdictions. And money matters in education--there's no getting around that. However, many of the gaps in per pupil expenditures between urban districts and their surrounding suburban districts have been closed in the past ten years, not eliminated in all cases, but closed substantially in many cases. [This is] in part because a higher percentage of the expenditures in the poorer districts are now being picked up by the states or even by the federal government through its compensatory education programs.

So, while money matters, it's not the only thing that matters. School safety and discipline matter a lot. Teacher quality matters a lot. Support from parents and the surrounding community matters a lot. And a culture of learning matters a lot. And all of those things have to be attended to at the same time that we continue to focus on the existing and remaining gaps in resources.

What works, from your experience in public schools, especially in urban areas that are in the crisis you described?

Some very basic common sense measures work in dealing with the crisis of urban education. You need good leadership in the schools, a strong principal focused on the basics can make an enormous difference. Restoring safety and discipline and backing up teachers who are determined to maintain discipline in their classrooms and in the school corridors can be very important. High expectations work. A solid academic curriculum for all students works. And determined efforts by school districts to recruit and retain high quality teachers can make a big difference....

One of the hot button political issues in this presidential campaign that separates Vice President Gore and Governor Bush is the issue of vouchers....There's a Cleveland voucher program, a Milwaukee program. A program that Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, is trying to get started [was] just declared unconstitutional by a judge last week. In general, what do you think of vouchers as a solution to the problems in public education in our cities?

I don't know of very many people who think of vouchers as the solution to the problem of education in our cities. We have to keep our eye on the ball. More than 90% of all of our school age kids go to public schools. And that ratio of 9 to 1 is likely to prevail for the indefinite future. So if we don't fix the public schools, then all of our other efforts are going to be futile or, at best, marginal. In addition there is a very, very substantial academic debate. And I do not pretend to be an academic expert on this subject, but there is a very substantial academic debate as to the efficacy of the early voucher programs that have been implemented. It is possible to look at the figures in a way that suggests significant progress. It is also possible to look at the figures in a way that suggests minimal progress or that attributes the progress that has been made to factors other than choice. For example, smaller class size....

In addition to being an academic, you are an advisor to Vice President Gore. Let me ask you a political question about vouchers. There was an op ed piece in the New York Times recently by a Reverend Floyd Flake who argued that Vice President Gore was vulnerable to the criticism that his own children were in private schools, had been educated in private schools, but that he was going to deny choice to poor black parents because he was opposed to vouchers. Do you think that that's something that the Republicans might use to try to go after the Vice President in the campaign, and that [Gore] might be vulnerable on that issue?

...I don't know of a lot of people who think of vouchers as the solution to the problems of American public education. There are a number of public opinion surveys that indicate that fewer than one fifth of Americans believe that vouchers are, or could be, the solution to the problems of American public education. The argument about sending one's own children to private school is a familiar debating point. I suspect very much that the American people are going to make up their minds about education policy in the year 2000 on the basis of the programs and the commitment and the overall credibility of individuals putting forward their plans. I am confident that when Vice President Gore and Governor Bush go head to head on that issue that the American people will be able to draw the right conclusion about which candidate, which program and, I might add, which political party is likely to be more committed to the cause of improving American public education.

But what do you say to a single black mother in Cleveland, for instance, whose school where her child is attending is dangerous, where the education is substandard and suddenly someone comes to her and says, "Here's a voucher--you can go to the Catholic school across town that may not have the best education in the world but it's safe, it's orderly, it's disciplined. It's better than what you have now."?

Let me say first of all that there is a significant gap in public opinion between white suburban parents on the one hand and African American parents, particularly in urban areas, on the question of choice and school vouchers. I think that the African American urban community is sending the country a huge signal that it wants revolutionary change in schools and it's fed up with promises. It will not wait much longer. And it is entirely understandable that parents whose kids are, from their standpoint, trapped in schools that are not doing the basic job properly will be willing to embrace almost any alternative that seems to hold out hope. I would be the last person in in the world to second guess a parent in those circumstances. So what we're talking about is public education policy, for cities as a whole and for the country as a whole and in that context we have to place our hopes on a comprehensive program of public education reform that is likely to get the job done for most or all students.

What is the program? Could you give me the highlights of the Vice President's program? I know it's 115 billion dollars--that's been the headline figure. What do we get for the $115 billion? what's he proposing?

The Vice President is proposing a comprehensive program that begins, in effect, at age 3 or 4 and goes all the way through post-secondary education and training. First, he's put a plan on the table, with the federal government in partnership with the states. [It] would guarantee quality pre-school for every child. Why is this so important? The very first national education goal stated by the governors, and then agreed to by the governors, and then President Bush more than a decade ago, was that every child would reach first grade ready to learn. Well, some children come from more fortunate circumstances than others. For some without quality pre-K, the goal of reaching first grade ready to learn is very unlikely to be realized. And, if we are interested in equal educational opportunity for every child, then we had better be prepared to invest in the sorts of programs that especially poor and disadvantaged kids are going to need in order to be comfortable with learning the content and the process from first grade on.

Another thing you're going to get for the large investment that the Vice President has proposed is school buildings that are fit to learn in, that are in good repair, that contain the technology that kids need to learn for the 21st century. And that sends a signal of concern and respect for every student and every learning opportunity whether it's in a wealthy suburban area or a poor urban area. You are also going to get an accountability program. You're going to get accountability for students in the form of higher standards and federal support for beefed up testing. You're going to get accountability for teachers. The Vice President has called for a test to be administered to every new teacher before he or she begins teaching that will demonstrate and guarantee competence. Not only in pedagogical technique, but also the content of the courses that that teacher is proposing....

What do teachers' unions have to say about this? The political charge against the Vice President is that he's in the pocket of teachers' unions and that teachers' unions are resistant to reform, especially to anything that would merit pay proposals, for instance, or in some cases to even testing.

You'll have to ask the teachers' unions what they think of the Vice President's proposals because, not only has he called for testing at the threshold, but he's also called for the development of fair but expedited means of getting rid of incumbent teachers who aren't measuring up. So take those two proposals...to the heads of the major teachers. The Vice President, of course, hopes that, on sober reflections, the teachers' unions will understand that they have an enormous stake in the credibility of the system of public education....

In that Floyd Flake op ed piece that I referred to earlier, he had a phrase saying that a President Gore could do for education reform what President Clinton had done for welfare reform. And his argument was [that he could reform education] by pushing school choice. What do you think about that?

I entirely agree with Reverend Flake that Vice President Gore could do for public education what President Clinton did for welfare reform. That is to say, bring what the Vice President has called "revolutionary change to our system of public education." The revolution that Vice President Gore is proposing is an accountability revolution....

You have these studies showing that the most important way to improve students learning is by having a good teacher. We also need an enormous number of teachers because we have this baby boom echo of the largest number of kids ever in kindergarten through 12th grade. So what do we do?

We are faced with the task of recruiting more than 2 million high quality teachers for public education in the next decade. Now that figure sounds dauntingly large. It represents a modest increase over the yearly recruitment that has been required in the previous decades. So it is not the towering crisis that some have maintained that it is but it's still a major challenge. It is for that reason that the Vice President's education proposal includes a proposal for a 21st century teachers' corps which would defray a substantial portion of the four-year college and teacher training expenses of young people who are willing to commit to teach for at least four years in high-needs areas, after they get their high school [degrees], their college diplomas, and their teaching certificates....

There has been a very remarkable [increase] in the past 2 or 3 years in the percentage of entering high school freshmen who say they are interested in becoming teachers. They see this as a career that can really make a difference. It's a way of expressing their idealism. It's a way of expressing their commitment to their country. It's the task of the country now to meet this youthful idealism half-way, or more than half-way with programs and opportunities that will convince our most talented young people that teaching is how they want to spend their lives.

Because I know what has happened with some individuals is that you get a very idealistic college student [that] says "Look, I'll go into an area, I'll go into a tough urban area where I'm really needed." They go in and they burn out in a couple of years because the school system is so bad, the support's not there and they can't take it. They're gone. So that school is back to square one.

The problem of retaining talented young people, particularly in tough schools in tough neighborhoods, is a tough problem. And it won't do much good to increase the number of young people entering the pipeline if the pipe continues to leak as much as it now does. What can we do?

First of all, we should build in opportunities of new teachers to meet with one another, to learn from one another's experiences and to learn from experienced teachers. Many young teachers describe an experience of near total isolation during those first few years. Being sort of flown into an educational ocean with raging waves and left literally to sink or swim on their own. That's wrong. And no other advanced industrial country throws its entering teachers back on their own resources in the way that we do. Second, we obviously have to provide more opportunities during the summer for young teachers to continue to learn from master teachers. And to be exposed to the latest materials, the latest developments both in content and in pedagogy in their chosen subjects.

And one other thing--a lot of young people who enter teaching get discouraged because they want to teach, not to spend all of their time enforcing discipline in the classroom. You hear this over and over and over again. If principals and other school administrators are really interested in retaining the services of talented young people, they will back those young teachers up when those young teachers do what they think is necessary in order to maintain discipline in the classroom. And it is just not only unwise but also unfair and incredibly short-sighted for school administrators to be so worried about lawsuits or parental complaints that they are unwilling to create a safe and secure environment conducive to learning in their schools. So school leaders have a huge responsibility in this regard and in too many jurisdictions, in my judgment, they are defaulting on that responsibility and they ought to change.

There was a piece in the New York Times Magazine several months ago which raised the issue: Can public schools solve the problems of poverty? Can they alone lift kids up and get them out of the situations that they've been in? or [is that] an impossible task to ask individual schools to do? What do you think?

Demography makes a difference--everybody knows that. It makes a difference whether you're rich or poor. It makes a difference whether you come from a culturally enriched background or not. But while demography makes a difference, demography is not destiny. A generation ago, leading school researchers really believed that demography was destiny, but the best modern evidence refutes that proposition. Schools in poor areas have a tougher job to do than schools in wealthier areas. But schools even in the poorest neighborhoods can get the job done....They can get there. And that is not only a profession of democratic faith. It is also the conclusion that recent evidence produced not only by excellent schools in the poorest areas, but also by much more broad-based studies about the effects of quality teaching on poor kids. That is the conclusion to which one is driven. And my fear is that failing schools in poor areas are using poverty as the excuse for their failure and they should not do that.

In his State of the Union address this year President Clinton said that if a school--even in a very poor neighborhood that's struggling--if they don't measure up, they should be closed. Do you agree with that?

I agree with that and the Vice President agrees with that as well and has put forward a program that would help identify those failing schools, help them improve and, in effect, change them over to new management if they don't. That is the least we can do for kids in those schools. It is intolerable that we tolerate failure in schools, because in tolerating school failure we tolerate unequal opportunity for some students in this society....

Let me ask you another political question. We've been in Texas. In Texas, Governor Bush backed standards, accountability. He opposed vouchers. A lot of proponents of vouchers in Texas are upset with him. And there's a privately funded voucher program because one could not be passed by the state legislature in Texas. What's the difference on a national level between Bush and Gore when it comes to education?...

We shouldn't end with Texas but we should at least start there. And Governor Bush on educational reform in Texas reminds me of the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. In fact, Governor Bush has done little more than continue the programs of his predecessors. Interestingly, a survey of Texas Republicans, taken just a few weeks ago, indicated that more than 40% of Texas Republicans questioned Governor Bush's credentials as an education reformer. So the idea that Governor Bush is some sort of path-breaking leader in educational reform is not one that will survive inspection. Having said that, as one moves to the national level, the principle questions that ordinary voters ought to be asking themselves, in my judgment are these: 1) Who has a program to insure that every student reaches first grade ready to learn? Vice President Gore has proposed such a program and, to the best of my knowledge, Governor Bush has done nothing of the sort. 2) Who has a plan to ensure that every student is in a school building fit and safe for learning? Vice President Gore has proposed such a program and, to the best of my knowledge, Governor Bush has not. 3) Who has proposed a program to insure that there are quality teachers in every classroom in this country and who has given not just rhetorical support to that, but programmatic and fiscal support as well? Vice President Gore has proposed a 21st century teachers' corps to get hundreds of thousands of teachers into those schools and school districts that need them the most. What's Governor Bush's plan?

At the other end, Vice President Gore has proposed a series of innovative measures to insure that every young person can go off to college, that every family can save for a college education, because increasingly in the 21st century economy, post-secondary education and training are the key to opportunity and to success. That will be a major point of debate and contention in the fall. So if voters are asking themselves those basic questions about the basic building blocks of educational quality, then Vice President Gore has nothing to fear from the comparison with Governor Bush.

There have been some slashing TV ads back and forth in Illinois, in the primary coming up. The Bush education ads...[are] saying that the Title I money that's being given to failing schools should be taken away from those schools and given directly to parents to use as vouchers. What's wrong with that?

So what Governor Bush is unwilling to defend at the front door, and indeed unwilling to defend as educational policy for his own state, he's now trying to achieve through the back door at the national level. I wonder why? Everybody agrees that the single largest federal program for poor kids and poor schools, namely Title I of the Elementary Education Act, needs to be reformed in order to make it more effective in reaching its goals.

The fundamental question is: what kind of reform? Vice President Gore believes that the best way to make Title I more effective is to make schools in poor areas more effective in doing their job for all students. And the Vice President does not understand how that objective can be furthered by giving some students the opportunity to remove money from the schools that are the hardest pressed as things now stand. So reform of Title I? Yes. A back door voucher program? No.

What do you think of charter schools? That's been something that's been pushed by a lot of educational reformers, Republicans and Democrats. In his State of the Union address again, President Clinton said that charter schools should double to 3000. Republican rebuttal never mentioned charter schools, which I thought was interesting that night.

Charter schools are one of the unsung success stories of public education reform, not only at the state and local level but also at the federal level. If memory serves me right, when President Clinton took office, the number of charter schools in this country could be enumerated on the fingers of two hands. Today, at last count, there were more than 1700. The Vice President is strongly in favor of the most rapid possible expansion of charter schools, consistent with basic regulatory and quality standards. He has called for a major increase in federal support for states that are moving in that direction...[Making] public school choices available to parents can create the kinds of incentives for improvement throughout school districts that are needed in order to catalyze change. So charter schools--absolutely--[should be] part of our future.

School choice is a hot phrase for the politics of education these days. When you talk to some people and they say school choice, what they mean is privatization. What do you mean by school choice?

School choice means the use of public funds in order to provide the widest possible range of effective choices among public schools for parents....In this country, unlike some others, we do not compel students to attend public schools if their parents don't wish them to attend public schools. So we believe, constitutionally and culturally, in choice. The Vice President believes that the best use of public resources and the most appropriate use of public resources is to dramatically expand the range of choices available among public schools. So that means more choice within districts. It can mean more choice across district lines, a strategy that a number of states are now experimenting with. One state, Minnesota, has done it comprehensively so that if you're a parent with a school-aged child, [you can] in effect...send your child to any school in the state.

Public school choice means a lot more charter schools. Public school choice may well mean a movement away from the large mega-schools, that are characteristic of a number of urban districts and some suburban districts, to a larger number of much smaller schools, including schools that are focused on more specialized subjects that lead down particular career tracks. There are very, very exciting developments in public school choice going on across the country and the Vice President, as part of his program for the revolutionary reform of American education, is interested in backing as many [school choice programs] as states and localities are willing to experiment with.

So, alternative schools, magnet schools, school experiments within the public school system, charter schools, yes, but vouchers, no?

The widest possible range of experimentation in public schools, charters, magnets, inter-district choice, a cross-district choice, specialized schools, schools within schools, breaking up larger schools into smaller schools--to all of those, yes, absolutely. To the use of public funds for non-public education, the answer is no....

We are talking about education here--public education--but ultimately, given what you've been saying [about] the disparities in education, we're really talking about race and class in America, aren't we? If we're talking about this new economy and people having to be highly skilled, highly trained, well educated, deal with computers and so forth, then the danger is that you'll leave a substantial portion of America behind unless schools in urban areas get a whole lot better.

When anyone speaks of the distinction between the suburbs and the cities in America, and the distinction between suburban school districts and urban school districts, one is speaking to a significant extent about race and ethnicity and class. If we do not close the gap between the two systems of public education in America, the system that could and should be better, but which is not failing its students, on the one hand, and the system that is failing its students on the other, then we will be condemning our society to the perpetuation of the distinctions and the inequalities across lines of race, ethnicity, and class that we've been struggling to overcome in recent generations.

I don't know of very many people at any point along the political spectrum who want to look forward 10 or 20 years and see an America divided along lines of race, ethnicity, and class. I think that all Americans of good will want to see that those divisions narrow in the next generation. Public education reform that brings all public schools up to a common standard of achievement and expectation is one of the best ways of closing that gap that I can think of.

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