the battle over school choice

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interview: george w. bush

Bush is the governor of Texas and the Republican presidential candidate in the 2000 election.
Our country is in good economic times, and at peace. Are we at a moment of opportunity when major strides can be made toward improving our schools?

We better make major strides toward improving our schools, because the real challenge as we go into the twenty-first 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. And I think we can get it right. I'm an optimist. I believe every child can learn. And I believe, if given the right plans and the right vision, every child will learn.

One of the interesting things about this campaign this year is that both you and the Vice President are making education a big priority, and you're saying some of the same things: failing schools need to be fixed; money has to be spent; and accountability is important. How would you comment on that?

The Republican Party has been unfairly cast as a party that doesn't seem to care about public education. I can challenge that with authority, because I've been a governor who has cared deeply about public education; a governor whose state has got an exemplary record of educating all children. We lead the nation, I'm proud to report, along with North Carolina, when it comes to objective assessments of student performance. We lead the nation in improvement amongst minority students, for example. And I am proud of that record.

And I am 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. We can talk the same words. The real question is, is there real meaning behind the words? I look forward to the debate with my worthy opponent on education.

I believe that poor people can learn.  I don't condemn children to failure because of their economic status. This mindset that says, 'Oh, Bush's plan will take money from public schools,' automatically assumes children can't learn. You mentioned the word "accountability". No question that we need to have more accountability in our society. Accountability in the public school system is one of the key ingredients to make sure children just don't get left behind.

The fundamental question is: is there any accountability, any consequence to an accountability system? It's one thing to measure. It's another thing to hold people accountable for poor results. And I think you're going to find there's a difference of opinion there.

When it comes to failing schools, it seems one of the big differences between you and the Vice President is what you would do with Title I. People are calling your proposal a national voucher plan, because you take that money away from the schools and give it to the parents to spend as they saw fit. So you have any sense of how much money that would be per student in a failing school?

It depends on the school, of course, and the number of students there are. A Title I school depends upon the number of Title I students. But let me talk about this kind of hyperbole that oftentimes enters the political process. People want to scare people. That's the kind of tactics that I have to battle against.

Here's what I've said. I've said that any time the federal government spends money, we ought to expect accountability. We ought to expect a return on our dollar spent, which says, if you receive money, we expect you to measure. And we're going to want you to measure on an annual basis. We want to know. We want to know whether or not the children are learning to read and write and add and subtract.

So step one is, in return for money, there's accountability. Step two is, in return for success, there'll be bonuses. And step three is, in return for failure--if the schools are not fulfilling the promise and hope, if they're not teaching children--then something has to happen. 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.

Now here's the difference of opinion. This kind of hyperbole saying, "Oh, they're taking money from public schools," assumes that children can't learn. I believe children can learn. My plan says after three years, if standards are met, no problem.

The Vice President has been pushed by what you've done and what you've said. He wants to close failing schools and use Title I money to reopen them with a new principal, new teachers--a reconstituted school.

No. The Vice President is not demanding annual accountability, and therefore you don't know whether or not children are learning or not learning. There needs to be strong accountability measures. And in all due respect to the Vice President, I don't think his accountability system has got the necessary teeth to make sure that children don't get left behind.

So you don't think it would be necessarily a good idea to use the Title I money in that way to improve the school and then reopen it? You'd rather give money to the parents?

No, I think the school can improve. If you set high standards and high expectations, and you hold people accountable, people will rise to the challenge. Because you see, I believe that poor people can learn. I don't condemn children to failure because of their economic status.

This mindset that says, "Oh, Bush's plan will take money from public schools," automatically assumes children can't learn. Because what I've said is, "Obviously, we're going to continue to fund Title I programs. But we expect children to learn."

How does this assume that children cannot learn?

Because if you say that my plan is going to take money out of public schools, you've just said that there is no way these children can meet standards--because when they meet standards, money is not going to leave the school.

The Vice President calls this proposal "fool's gold" because . . .

The Vice President likes to call people names all the time. And what the education debate needs is not name-calling or finger-pointing, or trying to scare people. The education debate needs a good honest discussion about what works.

I've seen what works in my state. It's important to have leadership set high standards. I believe all children can learn. And it's important to challenge failure. When we find children trapped in failed schools, it's incredibly important to challenge that mediocrity. I call it "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

We went to Cleveland, which has had a very troubled school system. One thing they've done to change that is to put in a voucher program. And almost all the kids there go to Catholic schools. Do you see any problem with taxpayers' money going to a religious education?

No. I don't at all. What I have trouble with is people accepting failure, with people turning a blind eye to the fact that schools are not teaching children. And I also have trouble with the federal government mandating school systems to behave one way or the other.

. . . School choice as an alternative is up to the citizens of Ohio to decide. I strongly support local control of schools. I believe the next president ought to work with Congress to pass power out of Washington, to say that you can get federal money, and you're going to get flexibility and authority to meet your needs. Cleveland, Ohio, is different from Houston, Texas, in many ways. One size simply doesn't fit all.

The difference between me and my opponent is that I know the best education reforms come from the bottom up, not the top down. The best way to encourage excellence for every single child is to free people to innovate, and to encourage educational entrepreneurships, whether or not choice and charters are a part of that freedom. But the federal government should not mandate choice and charters.

You used the word "entrepreneurial." A lot of people think that schools really need to be improved. But then when you put the issue of profit in there, people back off a little bit. What do you think about the operations in Ohio who are running schools on a profit-making basis?

Here's my question: are the children learning? So much of the debate is focused on process. I'm going to focus the debate on results and accountability. If the children are meeting standards, we ought to applaud the delivery mechanism. We ought to say, "Thanks, I appreciate your doing a good job." So I welcome all kinds of innovation into the system, recognizing, again, that one size doesn't fit all, and understanding that the best reforms are those that have been tried at the local level.

My state of Texas is diverse. But one of the things we do at the state level is to share what works. "So-and-so has tried it in this district, and let's share with others." But there's some commonality, though, between all success. And that is high standards, high expectations, aligning authority and responsibility at the local level, and having an accountability system with consequences.

. . . What do you think your most important legacy is going to be as governor of Texas, with regard to the schools?

I think the reading initiative that we put in place--a full-scale assault on illiteracy. It's a reading initiative coupled with the notion that we're going to end social promotion in schools by having early intervention into children's school careers.

And this wasn't just an idea, or just a statement. This is a strategy. We've changed our curriculum. We've got some of the best scientists in the world to come and help Texas rewrite our reading curriculum. We've got a K-through-2 diagnostic tool that can now be used to determine whether or not children need extra help in reading.

We've got money set aside for schools within schools to battle illiteracy. We've got a massive teacher retraining program, to make sure our elementary school teachers have got the tools necessary to teach reading. We've set a measurable goal, and it's going to change the face of Texas.

How have you been able to manage the bipartisanship? The Democrats and the head of the teachers' union speak very well of how you approached all this.

I appreciate that. . . . Here's the thing. It requires an attitude. I wanted to work with people. And I share credit. I signed the education reform bill in Democrat Paul [Sadler's] hometown, because I wanted to send a signal that Paul Sadler had worked so hard for the good of Texas, along with Senator [Ratliff], a Republican, and Governor Bush and others, Lieutenant Governor [Bullock] and Speaker [Laney], all of us, Republican and Democrat alike, made the decision not to let partisanship interfere with what was right for the schools. That's what's needed in Washington, by the way. But it starts with having a leader who understands how to lead, not someone whose first instinct is to try to tear somebody down and scare people. And that's what happens in the education debate, and that's what's happening to my plan. People are using shrill voices to frighten people. That's not the way I campaign.

. . . You mentioned that, in some cases, there needed to be scholarships for America's neediest children.

That's what I was talking about, the Title I program--schools that will perform. But if not, the money goes to the parent, as I mentioned in Title I. We were referring to the Title I initiative.

How do you see the parents . . . if I'm a parent, and my child is in a failing school, I'll get the money--what do you think I'll do with it?

Hopefully, you'll find a better place for your child to go to school. It could be a Catholic school, or another public school, or a newly started charter school. But the point is that there has to be a consequence.

Again, the debate oftentimes focuses on process, and many times forgets the child. But I've seen schools where children just simply get shuffled through. See, it's so much easier to say, "How old are you? Oh, you're 10, you're supposed to be here. If you're 14, you're supposed to be there."

And what ends up happening is that children just get moved through, whether or not they've got the skills necessary to master what we want them to master. So I've started to ask the question in my state, and intend to do so as the president: what do you know? And if you don't know what you're supposed to know, we'll make sure you do early, before it's too late.

So it's an attitude; it's a mindset that is so important. This is a process world, oftentimes in education. We ask these process questions about what building, or this that and the other. And the question really needs to be: is it working? Are children learning? And if they are, we need to sing praises to the teachers who are working tirelessly to help our kids.

But if they're not, we better have leadership bold enough to challenge the status quo. It's particularly important as we head into the twenty-first century--because the whole economy and the nature of information are going to change dramatically.

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