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. . . .
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. . . .
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
. . . 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. . . .
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. . .
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 program.
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.
Al Gore's first education commercial is an anti-voucher commercial.
Al Gore sent his own kids to private schools. For him to argue against school
choice for less fortunate people is one of the most brazen acts of hypocrisy.
What those commercials show is that he is an utter and total hostage to the
teachers' unions, and that as president of the United States, he will not do
anything to promote genuine education reform.
Texas Governor Bush is now running for president, and supporting vouchers
very strongly. But oddly enough, from my point of view, in Texas we found he
didn't really push vouchers. Were you a little disappointed in the governor's
Governor George W. Bush recognized that it was going to be a very tough sell in
the legislature in Texas, and as a result, he kept his political powder dry,
which was disappointing. By contrast, here at the federal level, Congress has
already passed a tax credit for educational expenses for all Americans. It's
passed a school choice program for the District of Columbia, only to have those
programs vetoed by President Clinton. I think any Republican in the White
House is going to be able to take a very successful step to implement school
choice for all Americans. . . .
The Republicans consistently have fumbled away golden opportunities to steal
the crown jewel of the Democrats' policy agenda, which is education. The
Democrats cannot go where the Republicans can go, because they're hostages to
the teachers' unions. The Republicans can promote greater choice in education,
greater accountability in education. But time and time again, they have failed
to articulate that--failed to take that message to the inner city where they
could expand their base dramatically. Who knows what will happen in this
I really think the single most important thing to remember about trying to fix
the schools is that there is no such thing as an instant result. It takes at
least ten years. Sometimes it takes 20 before you can see whether or not what
you tried to do back here actually worked. And so, the fact [is] that, before
Bush was ever elected governor, school scores [in Texas] were going up, the
minority kids were making real progress, and we had a system of school
accountability in place. None of that is down to Bush. What's annoying about
Bush and education is that he's claiming credit for things he does not deserve
credit for. But he does deserve some credit. I mean why couldn't he just claim
credit for what he's done? It's maddening. . . .
But Bush does deserve some credit on education. Here's the infuriating part.
Number one he didn't do anything to screw things up. And believe me he could
have. Number 2 he was really a good player in his first session [of] '95 on
rewriting the Texas education code.... And reforming an education code was, as
I [said], not really a great battle. But it took some effort, took a push, and
was certainly a step in the right direction....
By the '99 session, Bush was pretty busy running for president. He really
wasn't paying that much attention. Then, of course in '99, the thing he tried
to get done was vouchers, school vouchers. And he had sort of promised that to
the Christian Right and in one of the more hilarious moments of all time, he
needed one more Republican vote in the senate, which, in theory, he [needed to
have] in order to get the bill onto the floor. And [he] personally jawboned
senator Drew Nixon, who has the distinction of being the last guy in the Texas
legislature most recently convicted of a felony crime. And Drew got convicted
for soliciting a prostitute and illegal possession of a weapon. And he had to
serve six months in a half way house while he was also serving in the Texas
senate. So Drew's prospects of reelection really didn't look that bright. And
you would think that he might have responded to his popular leader, but you
would be wrong. Bush couldn't turn that one vote. And so his long promised
voucher thing went down the tubes.
And then sometimes with Bush--this is another thing you have to watch with
education reform--I know it's all [these] boring policy wonk words--but
implementation is often critical, and here's an example. Bush came in. He was
red hot for charter schools. He thought charter schools [were a] big part of
the solution to the problem of public schools. For all I know, they may turn
out to be an excellent idea. But what happens, the way you always start a
government program is you take a little baby step.... So we started by
chartering 17 of these schools, and we were going to wait a year or two to see
how they were doing, but Bush was so keen on this idea [that]
I think we chartered over 200 of these schools the next year. And, of course,
there were exactly two people in the Texas education agency who were supposed
to be in charge of this process. They were totally overwhelmed. We were giving
charters to people who were totally unqualified. People with no education,
people with financially questionable past....
As you can imagine, there was just one disaster after another. Some people
would spend all the money fixing up the building and then they'd be flat out of
money before the school year started, and never admitted a single student. In
a rather notorious case in Waco, there was so much financial mismanagement that
the school just had to be flat shut down. And [there] were all those Waco kids
[who] just lost an entire year of education. And this was not, unfortunately,
a terribly rare event. Now, as I say, it may be [that] the charter schools
will turn out to be a good idea. But when you just do things that stupidly
you're inviting disaster. We wasted millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money
because we didn't do it carefully....
You say in the book--and this is an old maxim for politics--"Would you
rather be smart, or would you rather be lucky?" Now, on education, George Bush
inherits this whole program, virtually--accountability standards, small
classes, more money spent on schools.
Yeah, and it is an old truism in politics, "It's better to be lucky than
smart." And Bush locked into such a deal. We were just starting to see the
payoff from all those terrible fights [over education policy] that we went
through in the 80s, the early 80s. the late 80s. The scores were getting
better. The minority kids were doing much better. The whole system of
accountability for the schools was already in place. All he had to do was just
ride that horse to the finish line. And, credit to him that he didn't pull
back on the reins. But the amount of credit he deserves for the whole thing--I
try to give him credit for what he deserves credit for--but it's pretty
maddening when you see him claiming so much....
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 which 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. ...
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....
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 . . . .
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.
What's the difference, on a national level, between Bush and Gore when it comes
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....
what do the candidates say? ·
how bad are public schools? ·
is "choice" the answer? ·
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