the battle over school choice

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photo of chester e. finn, jr.
interview: chester e. finn, jr.

Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation where his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. He was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education
Only about 7 percent or 8 percent of the money that's spent on public education in this country comes from the federal government. How important is the federal government to the future of public education?

. . . It's not a huge player obviously, financially, compared to the states, cities, and communities. In some domains it's dominant, like research and statistics and civil rights enforcement, where the federal role is the main role. Also, the bully pulpit of the president and secretary of education can make a lot of noise that influences the national debate about this on a larger scale than the federal programs. And the amount of federal regulation and manipulation exceeds the seven or eight percent. If you ask a state or local superintendent to what extent is their job shaped by federal priorities, they wouldn't say seven or eight percent. They would probably say 20 or 30 percent. So it's bigger than it looks just in dollar terms.

It seems that suddenly there's a big debate about public education. The presidential campaigns are debating this issue now. What do you make of that?

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.

You're going to find that the voucher issue is the clearest political difference between the two candidates and the two parties. . . . But behind that is something of a difference in what I'd call people's theory of change. 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 vulnerable?

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 this country?

There are a lot of obstacles to fundamental education reform in this country. A lot of vested interests and large interest groups like the status quo, and don't much want any fundamental shifts in the ground rules. But the teachers' unions are the 800-pound gorilla. They are the largest, the wealthiest, the most populous, the ones with the large numbers of votes, the big war chests, and things like that. They are joined in these matters by the school boards' association and the administrators' association and the teachers' college association and the textbook publishers' association. We can go on down a very, very, very long list. But none of them has the size or the wealth or the clout of the unions, especially when the two unions agree with each other on something. . . .

In your view, what needs to be changed? If you go back to that "Nation at Risk" report, the report said that public education in general in this country was in a crisis--that it was not serving our students, regardless of what class or suburban or urban districts they were in. Do you think that's still true? Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in crisis?

I think we're doing a pretty mediocre job as a whole. There are some beacons of quality, but they don't serve many kids. When you look at the international comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.

If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.

I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't particularly want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either. While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time. We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up or ship out." It's one of the reasons why the standards-based reform movement is beginning to produce a kind of backlash around the country. It is beginning to say, "Hey, we're serious, and if you can't pass this test, you can't get a high school diploma."

On the issue of standards and accountability, don't a lot of Democrats and Republicans see eye-to-eye?

One thing that makes this whole political education issue complicated is that there's a lot of convergence on a number of specifics within the field of education reform. Standards, tests and accountability have a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats all saying, "Yes, this is the way to go," or "This is part of the way to go."

What do you think about Governor Bush's record in Texas, specifically in these terms? He raised teachers' pay, and the teachers' unions down there say they basically like him. They got along with him. He imposed and kept going a system of standards and accountability. He's putting more money into construction of school buildings. He's emphasizing public schools, and when vouchers were proposed, he was very lukewarm, and didn't push for them. There are no state voucher programs or city voucher programs in Texas, just one that's privately funded. In a way, doesn't that sound like a kind of Al Gore record as governor of Texas?

Texas has a lot of charter schools, and they're pretty free, and Texas does have a fair number of these privately funded voucher programs, not just the one in San Antonio. I believe these are operating in several cities in the state. But as governor, Bush has done what governors do, which is to have standard tests and accountability, to try to improve the schools and try to create some options for kids. No, he did not fall on the sword over vouchers. His brother in Florida has one of the more interesting voucher programs in the country. But George W. didn't make that his lead issue. He has, however, done a good job with the issues that he's embraced. I think that the data show it. Nobody's going to claim that a big complicated state like Texas has a perfect record here. But I'm especially struck by the degree to which minority students in Texas now lead the nation among minority students. They're not where they ought to be, but they're doing better than minority students in anybody else's state, and I think that's pretty impressive. . . .

Bush sends his twin daughters to a public high school.

Well, that's better than Gore did. There's a seriousness in Bush. I've been in a room with him two or three times as he's been talking about education, and he's got a lot of passion and a lot of knowledge in this area. I think he's sincere, and motivated. His record is not a kind of classic hard-right pure-marketplace type of Republican record. When you look around, actually, very few of the Republican governors have those kinds of records anyway. Even the ones who have pushed pretty hard for school choice have also pushed for standards and tests and accountability and things like that. The sort of hard-right agenda is more often found among a handful of congressmen than it is among people who are actually responsible for running states.

Or businesspeople like Steve Forbes, who wanted to privatize education more or push more for choice.

That's right. That would have been a clear Forbes agenda item. Governors have some variation about the kinds of school choice they embrace, and some variation about the kinds of accountability mechanisms. But really there's quite a lot of bipartisan convergence among governors around the set of propositions as to what to do about elementary and secondary education.

This issue of Gore sending his children all to private schools here in the District has become something that's now been mentioned in several campaign appearances. But on the other side of that, isn't it also true . . . that no politician wants to send his or her daughter to a public school in the District of Columbia?

If memory serves, Amy Carter went to a public school in the District of Columbia. That's the last one I can remember. Of course, that might have also been the last president with school-age children, other than Chelsea Clinton.

When people say they're in favor of school choice, it's not hypocritical to send your kids to private school. What I think galls a lot of folks is to profess that poor people have to keep their kids in the public schools, but "because I am fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to St. Alban's or Sidwell Friends or National Cathedral School, I am free to do so, because I just happen to be lucky and rich and powerful. But you poor folks, stick with the public schools, we don't want to give you any options." That's hypocritical. . . .

At present, some 85 to 90 percent of American schoolchildren go to public school for kindergarten through twelfth grade. If you had your way, what would public education look like in the United States?

It would be different in two big respects. One is that the academic standards and tests and accountability would be very solid. We'd have really good standards, we'd have sensible tests, and we'd have real consequences, not just for kids, but also for grownups.

Would there be national tests?

I've never been against national tests. In fact, I was one of three sort of Republican education experts who was quoted in favor of national tests when Bill Clinton proposed them. But that, I'm afraid, is a dead issue. The Clinton administration bungled it badly in all sorts of ways, and a bunch of no-nothings in Congress made it worse. The upshot is that it's politically just a dead issue for now, so I think we're talking state tests, whether we like it or not. I'd have solid academic standards, good tests aligned to those standards, and real consequences, both the warm, fuzzy kind that reward success, and the less pleasant kind that intervene in the event of failure. I'd have them applied to all the grownups in the system, not just to the kids. Now that's one whole strand of change.

A separate strand of change that I think is very important is that all kids would have more educational choices, whether they are more diverse public schools or lots of charter schools or virtual schools or after-schools, summer schools. You would not be sort of stuck in just one school without options. And even within the one school you might have four mini-schools, for example, with different flavors, different styles, and different curricular emphasis.

Are vouchers the cutting edge issue between Bush and Gore?

You're going to find that the voucher issue is the clearest political difference between the two candidates and the two parties. That's the thing where it'll be easy to hear disagreement about. But behind that is something of a difference in what I'd call people's theory of change. What ultimately is going to bring about different behavior and different results in American schools? Not what would you like to see different--but what's going to cause things to change? What's going to cause people to alter their behavior? I really do think that, at the end of the day, Al Gore's theory of change rests on a regulatory model. It rests on people in Washington telling you what to do differently and checking to see whether you've done it. And I really do think that George W. Bush's theory of change rests to a great extent on the consumers and the locals having an improved consciousness about what needs to happen, and having options and greater control at the local level, with a kind of audit outside to see whether improvement is really occurring.

I really think that if you go an inch below the surface--and this may never turn up in debates because it's a little complicated--you'll find that Gore believes that Washington is going to bring about the change. Bush thinks that Washington may facilitate some, but that finally it's going to come about because parents and kids and teachers have more options and because local people have greater responsibility. . . .

Gore's model here rests on a kind of central planning notion of how you bring about diversity. It doesn't rest on entrepreneurialism, on energy, on creativity, on the marketplaces at all. It really rests on some assistant superintendent for long-range planning making a list of offerings that they're going to provide, and then a series of federal enforcers coming to make sure that each of those offerings conforms to about ten different federal laws and requirements. This is not an entrepreneurial view of change. This is a top-down, corporatist, big-government view of change. I do think he wants change, and I know he believes that that should include more diversity of offerings of education. What's going to bring it about in the Gore worldview are those central planners, and in the Bush worldview, it's entrepreneurs. . . .

I'm from California. One of the people pushing charter schools very strongly these days, in part because his Oakland school district is so awful, is Jerry Brown. You've been around this issue for a long time. I know you're a Republican. Doesn't this issue cut across a lot of party categories sometimes?

Part of what I like about charter schools is the degree to which it's neither fish nor fowl. Thus, it ends up with quite a lot of bipartisan support that cuts in interesting ways and interesting directions. Charter schools are never going to satisfy school choice purists, because they're still government schools, vulnerable to bureaucratic and legislative mischief. On the other hand, charter schools are far from satisfying the Establishment, the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all top-down types. As a result, charter schools are a kind of a hybrid here. They do have fans and promoters in both parties and across a pretty broad middle of the political spectrum. I think they're a pretty interesting idea. However, they are not yet any kind of cure-all for what ails American schools. We have 1,700 charter schools, but we still have 85,000 traditional public schools.

We've seen some terrific charter schools--very well run, very innovative. And we've seen some bad charter schools that have been closed down in Texas and Ohio.

Four percent of all charter schools that have ever opened their doors have closed or been closed--60 schools, by my count, as of today. This is a good thing. This suggests the charter accountability world is real. If you run a charter school that nobody wants to attend, or one that fails to deliver the results it promised, or that messes up badly and runs away with the money, for example, you don't have a right to continue operating. What do we typically do with a failed public school? We don't close it down. We spend more money, on the theory that lack of resources must have led to the failure. . . .

Let me be clear. Charter schools are not per se always good schools. I've been in some charter schools that I wouldn't send my worst enemy's kids to. But I also need to say that I have yet to find a loopy idea or stupid practice in a charter school that I haven't earlier seen in regular public schools, and frequently in private schools too. The goofiness is not a peculiar possession of charter schools, either.

Bush is pushing the idea of, to use another jargon term: "portability" for Title I. You know what that is. Is that a good thing?

Title I is the biggest federal program. It's about $8 billion a year. It's meant to help poor kids to learn to read and write, to catch up with rich kids. It's 35 years old, and for 35 years it has been a complete failure. Title I is the biggest failure in the educational arsenal. It has closed no gaps, and it has caused no gains. So the question is whether it needs a fundamental overhaul or just more of the same. The administration is plumping for more of the same. Some of the Republicans are pushing for a fundamental overhaul.

One form that a fundamental overhaul could take is to take that six or eight or nine hundred dollars per poor kid and let the family decide where to spend it. It doesn't have to be their day school. It could be at an after-school program. It could be at another school. It could be for something over the Internet. And certainly, if they moved their kid in pursuit of a better education and a better school, why shouldn't the federal money go with that kid? He's still poor, he's still disadvantaged, but the way the Title I program works today, the money stays in the school even if the kid leaves. This is just nuts. So portability, strapping the money on the kid's back so that it goes where he goes makes really good sense for Title I, and for a lot of other federal programs.

But that's not nearly enough money to pay for a child's education.

It's not meant to be a full tuition payment. It's meant to provide supplemental services. So if you go from a school that has a so-called Title I program into a school that doesn't have a so-called Title I program, your $800 might buy you an after-school tutor, or a Saturday morning program. The point is to help kids catch up, not to pay their full tuition.

Is that the main reason why I should vote for Governor Bush for president as far as education is concerned?

I will probably vote for Governor Bush within the education domain. We have to learn more about what both these people stand for in other areas. But I like his education record because he's actually figured out what's wrong with the system, and he's done some serious things to try to turn it around on his watch in Texas. That includes the whole standards thing, but it also includes a lot more choices and a lot more consumer power. I think this is a pretty persuasive record, and I compare it with the Clinton administration, or the Clinton-Gore administration's track record in education, which I find really pretty disappointing in spite of all the big talk. There are perhaps some genuine, sincere good ideas. I don't find it a compelling record.

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