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FRONTLINE 1817K "The Battle Over School Choice"
Air date: May 23, 2000 The Battle Over School Choice
Written and Produced by Stephen Talbot
Reported by Eve Pell
Louis Freedberg


NARRATOR: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the politics of education.

Vice Pres. AL GORE (D), Presidential Candidate: With your help, I will bring revolutionary improvement to our public schools.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH (R-TX), Presidential Candidate: We must challenge the status quo if children are failing, that no child should be left behind in America!

NARRATOR: In the presidential race, the spotlight is on schools. The candidates can't seem to stay out of them.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a-


NARRATOR: School enrollment has hit an all-time high - 53 million students - more than the Baby Boom generation. Ninety percent of those kids are in public school. How to improve those schools is now a top voter concern.

VICKI BALDWIN, Principal, Garza High School: People love to badmouth the public schools, but they're not willing to put their money where their mouth is.

RUDY CREW, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools: If you really want to fix the school, you can fix the school. You can fix it very quickly.

NARRATOR: The new campaign promise is "school choice." But what exactly does that mean? Different kinds of public schools? Or vouchers for private schools?

FANNIE LEWIS, Cleveland City Council: It's like a burning house. You know, what do you do, let the house burn down and kill everybody, or go in there and save who you can? And that's what the voucher's about.

NARRATOR: Tonight FRONTLINE investigates "The Battle Over School Choice."

In the campaign debate over education, Ohio is a key state. And in the war over vouchers, Cleveland is ground zero. The weekly Mass at St. Rocco, a Catholic elementary school in Cleveland.

PRIEST: My brothers and sisters, let us pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the almighty father.

NARRATOR: The revelation is many of these students are not Catholic.

STUDENTS: Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses-

NARRATOR: Taxpayers pay the tuition at St. Rocco for some 60 children, more than a quarter of the school.

PRIEST: Lord have mercy.

NARRATOR: It's called a voucher program, and it's one of the most controversial ideas in public education.

Sister JUDITH WULK, Principal, St. Rocco School: When they come, they know that our environment is a Catholic environment. Parents don't complain about it. They know if they're going to come here, they're going to get a Catholic education and therefore be involved in the Catholic Church.

NARRATOR: Whether to spend public money on private school is the most divisive education debate in the presidential campaign. Vice President Gore opposes vouchers, Governor Bush supports them. Vouchers are a hot political topic around the country, but right now they exist only in a few places like Cleveland. Low-income parents who are dissatisfied with their public school can apply for a voucher. It's worth up to $2,250, and that covers tuition at a Catholic school. For poor families, getting a voucher is like winning the lottery.

TAMMY GUIDO, Parent, St. Rocco School: And I won. All the neighbors knew I won because I was yelling outside, like, "I won!"

NARRATOR: Tammy's son, Thomas, is now a 6th grader. His mother says he was miserable at his neighborhood public school.

TAMMY GUIDO: And he just didn't like it. He used to cry every day. "I don't want to go to school, Mom." It was mostly blacks. Tommy was maybe- oh, God, maybe two out of his whole class were white. And you know, that's not a problem. Black kids, white kids, I don't care what he goes to school with, as long as he's learning. And he wasn't learning. Teacher didn't care.

THOMAS SWARTZ: This one kid named Jason, he would bring- he brought a knife, a switchblade to school once, poked holes in the seats, and he got a detention because he got caught.

TAMMY GUIDO: I told the bus driver, and she just acted, like, `OK." Like, you know, my son could have got stabbed, or anybody's kid could have got stabbed.

Sister JUDITH WULK, Principal, St. Rocco School: Parents do want a safe environment, and I know when our children- whenever they're spoken to about the school, that's one thing they say is the school is safe. And to me that tells me that they consider that a big issue.

NARRATOR: Safety in schools is not just a white issue. In fact, most of the students in the Cleveland voucher program are black.

JANIE HAYES, Parent, St. Vitus School: The voucher program is very, very helpful, especially for parents that can't afford to send their kids to a private school or to a better school, a better environment, you want to say.

NARRATOR: A voucher enables Janie Hayes to send her 8-year-old daughter, Jasmine, to 2nd grade at St. Vitus. Her teacher is strict, the teaching style a bit old-fashioned. But that's fine with Jasmine's mother.

JANIE HAYES: They get a good education. They bring homework home every day. And my girlfriend's daughter was in a public school, and sometimes she didn't have homework. Some kids don't bring books home. Some kids say they don't-"Oh, I don't have homework today." My daughter has homework every day.

NARRATOR: St. Vitus used to be a white ethnic enclave, but these days more than half the students are here on vouchers, and most of them are black. For many African-American parents, vouchers are a life preserver, a way to escape a public school system that broke down.

The economy of this old industrial city deteriorated, whites fled to the suburbs, and the public schools nearly went bankrupt.

RICHARD DECOLIBUS, President, Cleveland Teachers Union: I remember when one of the roofs in our elementary buildings collapsed during the weekend, just fell right in. I mean, if the kids would have been there, you would have had 20, 30 kids killed. Nobody cared.

NARRATOR: With buildings crumbling, classes overcrowded and violence erupting in the schoolyard, desperate parents sought escape in vouchers.

FANNIE LEWIS, Cleveland City Council: It's like a burning house. You know, what do you do, let the house burn down and kill everybody or go in there and save who you can? And that's what the voucher's about. If I decide that I want to take a voucher and go shop for my child, then I ought to be able to do that. The Welfare Department gives you a check. They don't tell you what store to spend it at. You know, you spend it anywhere you want. So what's the difference with the voucher? Why do you want to limit me to where I can go and buy my education from?

NARRATOR: Fannie Lewis, a maverick Democrat, represents one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. She joined forces with David Brennan, a wealthy businessman and major contributor to the Republican Party.

DAVID BRENNAN, Charter School Founder: The power of choice in the hands of the consumer is the most awesome power to guarantee quality, effective cost, effective delivery, consumer responsiveness. It's incredible.

NARRATOR: This unlikely pair, educational entrepreneur David Brennan and streetwise politician Fannie Lewis, led a successful campaign to convince the state of Ohio approve a voucher program for Cleveland Today, there are nearly 4,000 voucher students in Cleveland, most of them in Catholic schools.

One question about vouchers is whether they actually improve a child's academic performance. The results of several studies are, at best, inconclusive. What studies confirm is that the parents are happier.

JANIE HAYES: I love my daughter's teacher, the 2nd-grade teacher. She's excellent. I love the way she teaches. And it's a friendly environment here.

TAMMY GUIDO, Parent, St. Rocco School: Oh, yes, it's definitely worth it. These kids, you know, the education- they need their education. And they are not going to get it in a public school.

NARRATOR: The problems in the voucher program have cropped up at non-Catholic schools. At some of these schools, you bring your voucher and take your chances. LaRuth Jackson took a chance. She decided to send her son, Jayve'ante, to a new voucher school, the Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences.

LaRUTH JACKSON: What got me was the karate. They had it every week. And I met the instructor, and he was nice, you know what I'm saying?


LaRUTH JACKSON: The instructor.

JAYVE'ANTE JACKSON: What instructor?

LaRUTH JACKSON: Your karate instructor.

JAYVE'ANTE JACKSON: No. You call that good? He chucked my neck, punched me. [laughs]

NARRATOR: Originally based at this old rec center, the Islamic Academy was a private school set up to educate black voucher kids. But it promised far more than it delivered.

LaRUTH JACKSON: What do you call it when somebody gives you, like, false promises and stuff? That's what it was because she didn't live up to everything she said she was going to do. The school, academics, all that, you know, extra-curricular activities- a lot of stuff started stopping towards the end of the year, you know? And he didn't like it, did you?


LaRUTH JACKSON: And then I called the Board of Education, but they told me there was nothing they can do, really, because, you know, they have different rules. This is private school. It's not run by Cleveland Public Schools. There was really nothing they could do about it. So that made me figure, why don't they have rules? You know, I didn't know they didn't have to have proficiency tests. They're not required to have it, and I think all schools should, whether it's private or public schools.

NARRATOR: The founders of the school left town, owing more than $70,000 which they had collected from the state for students who never actually attended class. The school no longer exists.

LaRUTH JACKSON: And I'm just thinking we are promised a better education. And they do that a lot with the black society. They give you a voucher program and then everybody think, "Oh, private school, better education," but sometimes it might not be. It's all about the school.

NARRATOR: In Cleveland, Catholic schools are the only real alternative to public school.

JEANETTE POLOMSKY, Principal, St. Vitus School: When the parents come in and they're interested in registering in this school, we don't make any apologies for who and what we are. So we're a Catholic school, and we tell them that right up front, so that means that there is a religion class every day. It means that we pray during the day. It means that we'll use the 10 Commandments as a way to morally guide a child's behavior.

JANIE HAYES, Parent, St. Vitus School: Like I said, we're Baptists, and we attend a Baptist church. And I explained to her, you know, the difference or whatever. But she doesn't ask that much because she's still 8 years old. And I don't think they force on her that much, I mean, even though she learns about religion. But if you think about it, there's only one God. And so I don't have a problem with that.

NARRATOR: Jasmine is doing well at St. Vitus, but she may not be able to stay. A federal judge ruled last year that the entire Cleveland voucher program was unconstitutional, a violation of the separation of church and state.

FANNIE LEWIS, Cleveland City Council: People send their children to Catholic schools because they're looking for a better education. They're looking for discipline. They're not looking for no religion, you know? I know that my grandchildren went to Catholic school. I was not looking for religion. Christianity is taught at home. They're going there for education. And that's basically what most people are sending their kids there.

Some people go, and they become Catholic, but you know, I don't care, you know, what school, as long as it has a principal, it has discipline, and it has safety. That's what people are looking for. But people are using this church and state thing- I mean, that's nothing but a cop-out.

NARRATOR: The Cleveland voucher program continues while the case is on appeal. It is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Barry Lynn is one of the lawyers who filed the original lawsuit against vouchers.

BARRY LYNN, Americans United for Separation of Church and State: All you have to do is take a look at those schools in Cleveland that are getting most of this money. They are religious from the time the kids walk in the school in the morning until the time the school bell rings in the afternoon. That's fine, as long as it's paid for voluntarily and doesn't cost the taxpayers over $11 million a year.

NARRATOR: Clint Bolick is a conservative lawyer who filed the appeal.

CLINT BOLICK, Institute for Justice: I happen to be a religious non-believer, but I'll tell you where I'm a convert. I'm a convert to Catholic schools in the inner city. When I walk down the hallways, I see a crucifix on the wall, but I also see education going on in a safe environment.

NARRATOR: A Supreme Court ruling on the Cleveland case could decide once and for all if publicly funded vouchers can be used for religious schools.

CLINT BOLICK: I really do view this as the Berlin Wall, and the first bricks are already coming down. Once those first bricks come down, the rest of them are coming down really fast. It's not really a question of whether school choice is going to expand around the United States, but when.

NARRATOR: At least 21 states are considering some form of voucher program. If the Supreme Court upholds the Cleveland plan, the floodgates could open.

BARRY LYNN: This is a tremendously hot political issue all over the country. A lot of people seem to think that vouchers are some kind of Viagra for public school reform, but if you look at the data, it's really snake oil. It's not doing the job that it was designed to do. [ Examine the data on vouchers]

NARRATOR: After his bad experience in a voucher school, Jayve'ante Jackson is back in public school. He's lucky to have a good 1st-grade teacher. But 96 percent of the students here live in poverty. Last year, only 8 percent were able to pass the Ohio state proficiency tests. School officials consider Gardina Elementary one of the 10 worst schools in Cleveland. They would not allow our cameras to record the chaos in the hallways. Educators who oppose vouchers worry about the children left behind in failing public schools after the voucher kids have bailed out.

RUDY CREW, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools: Well, what about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a better school? What about them? Where do they go? What labs do they have? What preparation do their teachers have? What support will their leaders have? What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will the kids in that school have?

What are you going to do? Are you going to just simply say, "Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the two thirds of you that are remaining, basically, don't need this?" That's absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious.

NARRATOR: The federal government tries to address the problem of poor children left behind in failing schools with over $7 billion in aid called Title I. Now Governor Bush is now proposing to take that money and give it directly to parents.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH (R-TX), Presidential Candidate: [campaign event] We spend $7.7 billion on Title 1 students. And so, if you receive federal money, we're going to ask that you develop standards and that you measure to determine whether or not a child-

NARRATOR: According to Bush, if the school doesn't meet academic standards, the money available - anywhere between $500 and $1,500 - would be given to the parents.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: The money that would be going to the school goes to the parent, and that parent can make- use the money any way they see fit.

Vice Pres. AL GORE (D), Presidential Candidate: He's proposing to drain money away from public schools in the form of private school vouchers, which go to schools that are not accountable, at a time when we're supposedly trying to find ways to increase accountability. Now, if you take money away from the public schools and steer it toward private school vouchers, I think that risks starting a downward spiral just at the time when we need more investment in our public schools.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: We cannot continue to pour money into schools that won't teach. And so what I have said is, as opposed to subsidizing failure, we ought to free the parent to make a different choice. It could be a public school. It could be a charter school. It could be a tutorial. It could be anything other than the status quo.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: The promise is, or the illusion offered, is that we're going to give you enough money to pay tuition at a private school. And that's a fraudulent claim because, really, they're just offering a tiny down payment that wouldn't even begin to pay tuition. And so low and low-middle-income families cannot use them for the purpose that they're advertised for.

NARRATOR: Under pressure from Bush, the vice president now has his own plan for helping parents whose children are stuck in the worst schools.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: I have proposed shutting down every failing school and reopening it with a new principal, with full peer review of all the teachers, new resources, and a new school plan to make that school a success.

NARRATOR: But Gore is still taking some heat for not supporting vouchers.

REPORTER: [Democratic primary debate] My question is for the vice president. A majority of the African-American community supports vouchers, 60 percent. However, one thing that you're proud of is you like to say you always have opposed vouchers, and you criticize Senator Bradley for even wanting to experiment with them.

However, you yourself are the product of private institutions, as are all your children. Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child? And if not, why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?

Vice Pres. AL GORE: Well, all of my- all of my children- you know, you can leave them out of this if you want to, but all of my children have gone to both public schools and private schools. The reason I have opposed vouchers is because I think they represent a big and historic mistake by draining money away from public schools at a time when we need to lift up the public schools.

NARRATOR: This is the public high school in the vice president's neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Like many urban schools, it has suffered from neglect and violence. Earlier this year, two promising Wilson High students were murdered in an off-campus shooting.

Metal detectors and X-ray machines are standard procedure at high schools in Washington. These days security is even tighter at Wilson. Guards check every book bag and every student I.D., while a crowd builds up outside. The vice president doesn't like to talk about it, but he does send his son to Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington, D.C., just down the street from Wilson High. The tuition is $16,000 a year.

In Austin, Texas, George Bush lives in the governor's mansion and sends his twin daughters to the local public high school. But it's not exactly a sacrifice. The school is one of the best in the state. Austin High seems to have everything, including a championship orchestra. Austin is a reminder that in suburbs and affluent neighborhoods, there are many fine public schools and not much need for school choice. There are lots of challenging classes and dynamic teachers. And of course, there's the first-rate sports program.

RUDY CREW, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools: This is as close as America knows how to have a conversation about race and class. The conversation about education just below the surface about standards and assessment and curriculum and so on- just below that conversation is a real conversation about who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? Who will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands? [ Read the full interview]

NARRATOR: In places where resources are severely limited, many reformers place their faith in charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that act like private schools. They negotiate their own contracts with a school district and have more independence. We found one in a blighted neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio.

Sister CORCORAN, Co-Director, Youngstown Community School: This part of Youngstown, Ohio, is inner city, depressed, vandalism, homicides.

NARRATOR: Youngstown Community is a secular charter school, even though it was conceived by two nuns.

Sister DUNN, Co-Director, Youngstown Community School: When Sister Jerome heard about the law being passed, we decided, "Let's get on the bandwagon. Let's see what we can do." And so we hustled and called Columbus and did the preliminary work and got the contract and opened in September of '98. In our school, 85 percent of the children are below the poverty level, which is a very high percentage. In the child care, it's 95 percent.

NARRATOR: The state of Ohio pays its charter schools $5,000 per student. Here the education - and the meals - are free.

Sister DUNN: They really need to know they're loved and cared for and to feel safe when they're here. Also, the children need to have good work habits- for example, coming to school every day, and not only getting here every day, but getting here on time every day. That's very important. Another thing is developing a sense of responsibility. For that, as a 5 or 6-year-old, it's doing his or her own homework.

NARRATOR: They start early, in kindergarten, gently but consistently, emphasizing the basics. The sisters see their school as a way to save children from the crime and poverty that surround them. But they know there's only so much one charter school can do.

Sister CORCORAN: One of the ironies of our situation a few years ago, the local public schools were in debt $46 million. And that same year, they dedicated, as it were, a $46 million prison. There's a comparison. And the only antidote to prisons is quality education of poor children.

NARRATOR: Proponents say that charter schools can be the research and development division for public education, experimenting with new ideas. But some experiments are more unusual than others.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [January 27, 2000] We know charter schools provide real public school choice. When I became president, there was just one independent public charter school in all America. Today, thanks to you, there are 1,700. I ask you now to help us meet our goal of 3,000 charter schools by next year.

NARRATOR: Charters offer choice without the intense controversy surrounding vouchers.

CHESTER E. FINN, Jr., Asst. Secy of Education Under Pres. Reagan: Part of what I like about charter schools is the degree to which it's neither fish nor fowl. It thus ends up with quite a lot of bipartisan support that cuts in interesting ways and interesting directions.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: I want to see full public school choice. And I want to triple the number of charter schools, public charter schools, in our country. If they're done the right way, they can bring tremendous incentives for new competition and dramatic improvement.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: [campaign event] They provide interesting opportunities for parents and teachers and principals to try things differently if they're frustrated with the status quo. That's what it is.

CHESTER E. FINN, Jr.: They do have fans and promoters in both parties and across a pretty broad middle, at least, of the political spectrum. And I think they're a pretty interesting idea. They are not, however, yet, at least, any kind of cure-all.

NARRATOR: Proponents say that charter schools can be the research and development division for public education, experimenting with new ideas. But some experiments are more unusual than others.

1st DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Platoon, parade rest!

2nd DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Right face!

1st DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Right face, not about face!

NARRATOR: The Riser Military Academy, a charter school in Columbus, Ohio, was an experiment in boot camp education. Founded by an Army reservist, the school was supposed to offer discipline and structure to its mostly black students. But the school itself was hopelessly disorganized. Housed in a former appliance store, the school opened last fall in what might be called a state of military unpreparedness. There were not enough books, no school cafeteria, no indoor toilets, and frequent complaints of physical abuse.

CHESTER E. FINN, Jr.: Let me be clear. Charter schools are not per se always good schools. I've been in some charter schools that I don't think I would 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 private schools, too.

NARRATOR: In January, the Ohio Department of Education ordered the Riser Military Academy to close.

Another controversy surrounding charter schools is whether entrepreneurs should be allowed to make a profit running these publicly funded schools.

DAVID BRENNAN, Charter School Founder: Education is first, last and always a business. If it's run like a business, it can be done profitably.

NARRATOR: David Brennan, who led the campaign for vouchers in Cleveland, is now in the charter school business.

INSTRUCTOR: If everybody could look into their folder and pullout the Life Skills Center parent-student contract.

NARRATOR: Based in Akron, Ohio, Brennan's charter school is called Life Skills, a "second chance" for drop-outs.

INSTRUCTOR: Also, what we need to have is a copy of- proof of identification, simply because we've had some situations where students lied about their age and they had enrolled in our schools.

NARRATOR: The state pays the school $5,000 for each one of these students. By law, charter schools must be non-profit. But the schools can hire an educational management company - or EMO - to run the school, and the EMO can try to make a profit. Brennan calls his EMO White Hat Management. And he thinks he's found the way to make money teaching: computers.

DAVID BRENNAN: The organization is really around individual instruction plans, and individual instruction plans are tailor-made for computer delivery. It is- you can do the same without computers, but then it's tutoring one on one, and that is economically prohibitive. So you end up with a technology tutor.

NARRATOR: The basic idea is to sit a student in front of a computer for three hours a day and let her proceed at her own pace through a high school software program. Instructors are standing by if a student has a problem.

DAVID BRENNAN: We have incredible people, many of whom took a pay cut to come with us. But they believe, and I want to reward that. And the way to reward that is you make them shareholders. And if, indeed, it becomes profitable because of their efforts, they can make some money. That's the American way.

NARRATOR: There are no sports here, no arts, no regular classes. It's a stripped-down school: computers three hours a day. Not everyone thrives in this Spartan setting. White Hat Management told us that out of 658 Life Skill students, 228 have dropped out.

RICHARD DECOLIBUS, President, Cleveland Teachers Union: We are definitely opposed to the kind of the K-Mart approach to charter schools that David Brennan and a few other companies around the country are trying to advocate. We think once you put profit as your prime motive, then you have- then obviously, when it comes down to decisions of what's more important in this case, the child's education or making a bigger profit, profit is going to always win.

DAVID BRENNAN: Are we hurting children because we're doing a good job with them? I don't think so. If we are able to make profit out of an enterprise where everybody else is losing money, is that bad? Someone has to tell me why. I can't figure that one out.

NARRATOR: After a heated debate last month, a sharply divided Ohio Board of Education approved White Hat Management's plan to open 11 new Life Skill charter schools. With thousands of new students, Brennan's company could bring in more than $50 million a year in state and local funds.

RUDY CREW, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools: I don't think you're ever going to stop those people, but I think the name of the game for me is how to actually compete with them. I don't think attacking the notion of privatization is a way of being able to defeat this issue. I think building stronger, more viable, more sensitive, more thoughtful, more exciting public schools is the way of being able to do this.

NARRATOR: In fact, millions of kids around the country are already attending innovative public schools like this one in Cleveland, an elementary school which emphasizes the arts. These schools go by a variety of names- magnets, pilots, or simply alternative schools. They are the biggest school choice experiment in the nation. [ Explore reform initiatives in your area]

The biggest challenge is creating one of these public alternative schools to serve the students most neglected by the traditional school system. We found one in a poor neighborhood in Austin, Texas.

VICKI BALDWIN, Principal, Garza High School: They tend to put the worst kids in the worst parts of towns with the worst teachers. And my deal with the superintendent was that I would agree to do this if I wasn't going to take a nickel-and-dime budget and I would not take any disenfranchised adults to work with disenfranchised kids.

NARRATOR: Baldwin got what she wanted. She convinced the superintendent in Austin to let her create a small alternative high school with a reasonable budget and a lot of freedom.

VICKI BALDWIN: Garza High School is a haven, in my opinion, that meets students' needs first and foremost. One of the things that I've observed is so many of the kids here have suffered a loss in their life. I mean, they're what I call the walking wounded, and they feel trapped and lost.

[to student] You have some time for me? You need to bring me up to date on your life. You're sister had her baby?


VICKI BALDWIN: Where are you living?

STUDENT: I'm living with my father now.

VICKI BALDWIN: How's that?

STUDENT: Yeah. It's going all right. It's going all right. I'm just trying to abide by his rules and stay inside the house, where he doesn't lock me out.

VICKI BALDWIN: This one student, in particular, had dropped out, just quit coming. He was living with his mother and his sister. And the mother was tragically killed in a one-car accident on Christmas Eve.

Several days later, a very good friend of his was killed on the same stretch of road. But on the first day of classes, which was January the 5th, he showed up at school. But I thought it was a very strong message because this school had touched him. He knew that he would be cared for and appreciated and loved here.

STUDENT: I'm just trying to keep it all together. Trying to keep it all together.

VICKI BALDWIN: Aren't you glad you came back?

STUDENT: Yes. I'm glad I got a home here now.

VICKI BALDWIN: We are here - you can use the word "mother" - nurturing and caring and guiding and cajoling and recognizing and kind of an unconditional love situation.

NARRATOR: Garza High offers small classes and individual tutoring. Teachers try to inspire students who have failed state tests and given up on school. Students move through a standard course of study at their own pace. When a student completes all the requirements, the school celebrates with what they call a "Star Walk."

VICKI BALDWIN: A lot of what we do is confidence building, and you can only build confidence and self-esteem by being challenging and by being rigorous and being a school of substance. I think the majority of kids that are here have shown us that they have been under-challenged for years.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: [campaign event] We must challenge the status quo if children are failing, that no child should be left behind in America!

Vice Pres. AL GORE: [campaign event] With your help, I will bring revolutionary improvement to our public schools!

NARRATOR: In campaign 2000, Gore and Bush are vying to be the next "education president." Not a week goes by without one of them eating lunch in a school cafeteria or getting his fingers sticky doing paper mache. They both say they will make public education a top priority. It's not the kind of talk you usually hear from a Republican.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: [campaign event] Good morning! Good morning!

NARRATOR: Since Bush became governor, Texas has increased education spending 24 percent to more than $23 billion a year. He started a special reading program for young children, supported bilingual education, and gave teachers a $3,000 raise.

CHESTER E. FINN, Jr., Asst. Secy of Education Under Pres. Reagan: 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, and who wants to talk about this.

NARRATOR: What Governor Bush did not do is champion vouchers, which in Texas is a cause dear to the heart of the Christian right.

DONNA BALLARD, Former Texas State Board of Education Member: [press conference] Let me be clear. George Bush is no conservative. In our experience, Governor Bush is more accurately described as a "new Democrat."

NARRATOR: During the Republican primaries, conservatives on the Texas Board of Education openly campaigned for Bush's rival, Steve Forbes.

ROBERT OFFUTT, Texas State Board of Education Member: [press conference] His failure to support conservative Republicans in their efforts to improve and make more rigorous our curriculum standards was disappointing.

NARRATOR: On education matters, Governor Bush cooperated with Democrats and teacher unions, and he appointed a Democrat as his education commissioner.

MIKE MOSES, Former Texas Commissioner of Education: Education was a centerpiece, and he was an advocate and a spokesperson. And I believe, in the time that I was certainly associated with him, he was a friend to public education.

MOLLY IVINS, Syndicated Columnist, "Ft. Worth Star-Telegram": 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.

NARRATOR: Bush inherited an education reform movement which began back in the 1980s with Dallas billionaire Ross Perot.

MOLLY IVINS: He charged around this state talking to business groups and CEOs and Chambers of Commerce, convincing the businessmen that money spent on education was a great investment.

ROSS PEROT: Our schools in many cases across the state, have become primarily social institutions, places dedicated to entertainment and play.

NARRATOR: The Perot commission got tough, imposing a rule known as "No pass, no play."

JOHN COLE, President, Texas Federation of Teachers: Students were told they had to make a 70 in every course, or they could not play on the Friday night football game or show their pig at the fat stock show. And that caused a lot of anguish. I don't know how many parents I heard from who said, "I spent $3,000 fattening up that calf, and now we can't show it."

1st TEACHER: Today you are going to take the writing section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS Test. This is a very important test. In addition to other requirements, you must obtain a passing score on this test before you can receive a high school diploma.

NARRATOR: The centerpiece of the Texas reform plan is a standardized test. Since Bush has been governor, the percentage of students passing the TAAS test has increased from 53 percent to 78 percent.

2nd TEACHER: If you are African-American, put 1. That's where it says E. So if you are white, you put 5, Hispanic you put 4, African-American, you put 1.

NARRATOR: The test results are categorized by race, so the state can keep tabs on how each group is doing. In Texas, minority students of all ages have dramatically increased their test scores.

MIKE MOSES, Former Texas Commissioner of Education: I believe that's the genius of our system. We're holding ourselves accountable for the performance of all children. And as the governor would say, we don't turn our back on any child.

JOHN COLE: We shouldn't be complacent and think that we've achieved a kind of educational Nirvana here. We still have way too many kids who don't make it through the program. There's a great debate about how the drop-out rate is calculated. My guess is that our figures indicate that it's about, like, 47 percent of our kids still don't make it through.

NARRATOR: The exact number of dropouts is subject to a fierce debate in Texas, but all agree it is still way too high, especially for Hispanics. Nevertheless, Bush's effort to improve Texas public schools has given him a solid education record to run on, something new for a Republican presidential candidate.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: I am proud of that record. And I'm proud of leading our party to be a party that cares about the education of our children and the strength of the public school system in America.

NARRATOR: On education, the candidates have more in common than either would like to admit. But you'd never know it from their TV ads.

ANNOUNCER: [Gore campaign commercial] Bush's Texas record: 45th in the nation in SAT scores, an accountability system so full of cheating, it's under investigation.

ANNOUNCER: [Bush campaign commercial] Under Al Gore and Bill Clinton, national reading scores stagnated. America's high school students place almost dead last in international math tests. Gore and Clinton had eight years, but they failed.

NARRATOR: Despite their attack ads, Bush and Gore are moderates trying to capture the political center. They both claim the mantle of "school choice."

Vice Pres. AL GORE: [campaign event] Public school choice and competition are essential if we want to push our schools to the highest possible levels of excellence in education.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: [campaign event] If we find children trapped in failing schools, we must liberate their parents to make different choices because there are no second-rate children in America.

NARRATOR: The idea of school choice is politically popular. Who could be against choice? The only real fight is over vouchers, public funding for private schools. But the debate over vouchers obscures more fundamental questions.

MIKE MOSES, Former Texas Commissioner of Education: A big question in Texas, and I suspect across the country, is going to be will the old pay to educate the young? Will an older, aging, over-55 population that has most of the discretionary income in this country pay to educate an under-18 population that is growing and is usually poor and is usually more minority?

VICKI BALDWIN, Principal, Garza High School: You better watch what you do to the public schools because the public schools are the backbone of our society. It's not the private schools. It won't be the charter schools. It won't be the- but you'd better really focus on teaching all kids. The gap that exists today between the haves and the have-nots needs to be addressed head on.

NARRATOR: Both candidates are pledging more federal money for the poorest schools. But Gore says he will spend far more on education than Bush- $115 billion over the next decade. Struggling schools like Wilson High are the real challenge in public education.

For this school in the vice president's neighborhood, Gore's budget would mean money to repair the leaking roof and renovate this old, dilapidated building, and money to raise teacher salaries. Gore says he wants to give every teacher in the country a $5,000 raise. The best teachers willing to work in urban schools like Wilson would get a $10,000 raise.

Everyone these days seems to recognize that teachers, the lowest-paid of the white-collar professions, need to make more money.

CHESTER E. FINN, Jr., Asst. Secy of Education Under Pres. Reagan: We've got to pay great teachers more money, and that is to say, really good ones. We've got to pay combat pay for those that are willing to take on tough school situations. And incidentally, we've got to pay some subjects more than we pay others. If there's a scarcity of math and science teachers because those same people have $100,000 jobs beckoning in Silicon Valley, we're going to have to pay those teachers $100,000.

NARRATOR: Republicans are moving closer to Democrats on the need to pay teachers more.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: [campaign event] I proudly signed a $3,000-per-teacher pay raise in the state of Texas this year. And I think- I don't think you can pay a good teacher enough money.

NARRATOR: And Democrats are moving closer to Republicans on the need to get rid of incompetent teachers.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: We need to make it easier and faster to fire the ones that are making the vast majority who are excellent look bad.

NARRATOR: Gore says he's even willing to take on his supporters in the teacher unions.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: That's what political leadership is all about, to go to your allies and say, "Hey, we got to change."

NARRATOR: In the end, both candidates agree that the country's future depends on the quality of public education. Thousands of public schools like Wilson High desperately need the resources both campaigns are promising.

Even with all its problems, Wilson is not a lost cause. It has a good academic program and a dedicated principal who knows that what he needs most is something the candidates can't deliver.

STEPHEN TARASON, Principal, Woodrow Wilson Senior High School: The biggest challenge here, outside of the facilities- which is just- you know, we can handle that. I mean, we can live with a leaky roof and no elevator. But the biggest challenge is maintaining the trust of the parents, the faith of the parents in public education, and to encourage them, to take those who are trusting and those who have had the positive experience, to go to other parts of the city and say, "Hey, it can work."

NARRATOR: If schools like Wilson have a chance to thrive, now seems to be the moment, with public interest in education high, the economy strong, and two presidential candidates focused on public schools.

Gov. GEORGE BUSH: The real challenge as we go into the 21st century is to make sure children don't get left behind. The real challenge is, as our economy shifts from brawn to brain, that our children have got the capacity to take advantage of the hope and promise of America. Education has got to be the cornerstone of domestic policy.

Vice Pres. AL GORE: I want to make this the top national priority for investing in the future. Don't tell me that a president of the United States, who campaigns on this issue and says it's the top priority, with the support of the American people, can't mobilize the Congress by hitting the issue over and over and over again, and saying, "We're going to do this because it's important." Our kids deserve it. Our future depends upon it.

RUDY CREW, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools: This is a wonderful time, in the sense that this is really the most artistic that we have ever been asked to be. And the work right now of teachers, and the work right now of- and particularly of unions, and the work of labor and management is to actually create a very different piece of tapestry. And it has to look very different than the wars and the twisting of arms, the Gordian knots that we've tied each other in in the past. That's been a pretty gory thing, a pretty ugly thing.

I think this is a very different moment for us. And if we seize it, it will be because we've actually learned a set of behaviors that actually takes advantage of this moment to dance, to really dance differently.

A FRONTLINE coproduction with

Center for Investigative Reporting

Copyright 2000



ANNOUNCER: For more on the educational reform debate, explore our Web site for extended excerpts of FRONTLINE's interviews with the candidates, a summary of Gore and Bush's positions on improving schools, a decades-long chronology of America's education crisis, the best analyses of education reform initiatives, and join the discussion at or America On Line keyword PBS.

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