the battle over school choice

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interview: vice president al gore

Gore is the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2000 election.
Why do you think education, of all issues, has become such an important issue in your campaign, and the presidential campaign overall this year?

The changes that we associate with information technology have now begun to transform all of the jobs in this country, the professions, the way we live our lives. And everybody sees the importance of being able to handle information more skillfully. And of course, if more and more of our economy is in the form of information, basic skills like reading become even more important than they were in the past. And they've always been important, but they're more so now....

I think most people in our country have begun to see the impact of what we describe with this phrase, the Information Age, in their lives, in their jobs, in every part of our country. And with more and more of our economy made up of information, the ability to read, and read off a computer screen... I think people have seen the big changes in their own lives that have accompanied the computer revolution, the so-called information age. There are a lot of good jobs that people can't get now if they don't have a lot of education, and unless they're able to get the training that education can make them qualified for.

We're the largest generation of students ever in our history, bigger than the baby boom....The majority of businesses have good jobs that they can't fill now, because they can't find enough people with the educational attainment that they're looking for in their workforce. And all these things have combined to sort of drive home the point that, as important as education has always been to us, it's even more important now to lead a fulfilling life in this new century, and to get a good job.

Now when people talk about the crisis in American public education, first of all, do you agree, there is a crisis? And if so, where do you think it is? Where's the problem in American education? Is it in our suburban schools? Is it in inner cities? Does it exist?

There are too many failing schools. There are a lot of great schools. And it's interesting when you ask people in the country about this problem, they'll respond as you suggested. And then when you ask them, what about your own public school in the place where you live? And they say, "oh, I like it a lot. It's doing well." Many of the respondents will say [that] even in their school, it's a problem. But I think that there is a widespread agreement that there are too many failing schools that are letting our children down. There is an agreement that, over the years, the profession of teaching has not been kept competitive with all of the other professions that are now available for everybody.

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.Women used to be disproportionately steered toward teaching and nursing and when the social revolution, thank goodness, opened up all jobs and professions to women, there was a drain. There was a lot of new competition for teaching. And, because the salary levels have been set through a complicated political process, it's been slow to adjust. And people don't want to give more money for the same old thing. They want reforms. They want accountability. But if they see that the changes can be made, then they are more than willing to devote new resources to bring about the revolutionary changes that they know are needed.

Traditionally, education is a Democratic issue, Democratic candidates, the Democratic Party, Clinton-Gore administration. Governor Bush is coming at you on the education issue. He's made a lot of the education issue. He has an education record here in Texas. Are you surprised by the way education has been taken on by the Republicans?

I welcome it. I think it's great for the country. Now, he has not yet been willing to debate me on education. And I think one of the ways to test these propositions that candidates put forward is to see if they can survive in the competition of ideas. Putting them out in press releases and commercials is one thing. Making speeches about it--that's unilateral. But the contest of ideas really requires a debate. And I'd like to have a lot of them because I think that there are some illusions that he has built into his approach. The most important one is that the centerpiece of his plan is a $2 trillion tax scheme, which means he's devoting $100 in risky tax proposals for every $1 that he's talking about for schools.

Now, $2 trillion would spend the entire surplus, and then another trillion dollars on top of that. A smaller tax cut proposed by the Republican Congress results in deep cuts in federal education spending. And I think that that's a serious flaw in what he's talking about. I think the second big flaw is that 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. And again, it's based on an illusion, because 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 [private school vouchers] for the purpose that they're advertised for. And yet they drain money away from the public schools. Look, 90 percent of America's children go to public schools. This is at the high for a percentage. And in absolute numbers, we have more children in public schools than ever before. I don't think we can drain money away from public schools at a time when we need new investments and new accountability.

Let me follow up on that with two questions. First of all, on the proposal that [Bush] is making now, essentially as I understand it, it's to say that if a school fails three years in a row, low performance on tests, that the Title I money, federal money, that would go to that school, would be withdrawn. The money would be divided up and given to the parents of the children in that school. [The parents] would have that voucher, and [the government] would say, "use that in any way you want to spend it educationally." And when you talk to some of [Bush's] advisers, they say just what you've said. [The voucher is] not nearly enough money to pay tuition at a private school, even a Catholic school in an inner city, $800-900. But [Bush's advisors] still like that, because they say, you can spend that on tutoring or an after-school program or something on the Internet. So do you still think, if it's described in that very modest way, that that [Bush's proposal] has any value? Or is that still a misuse of Title I funds?

It doesn't surprise me that his advisers like [the voucher proposal], and have a different way of presenting it. It draws money away from schools at precisely the time when we need to be devoting more resources to the schools. And some of those who receive the vouchers will flee, and diminish the support that is necessary in order to bring about the revolutionary progress that is needed. And the message the [parents are] being given is not that the Title I money is going to be used for something else in that school. No, no. They're being told that this is for you to go to pay the tuition at a private school. [Bush's advisers] haven't said to any voter out there, or any person who's judging the value of the proposal that this is intended for them to spend back in the same school system. That's not the way they're advertising it at all. And they don't have the real tough accountability provisions that are needed.

I want to get to accountability. But first, we've been in Cleveland. We've seen some very bad public schools. And we've also interviewed black parents who have said, "This school is too dangerous. I'm going to take my kid out. I'm going to take advantage of the voucher program in Cleveland, and I'm going to put him, if necessary, in a Catholic school." What do you say to a parent like that?

I think that Catholic schools do a great job....A lot of the research indicates that there is a great deal that the public school system can learn from Catholic schools. What seems to make the most difference is the creation of a caring community in the school, where there is a sense among all of the students that they're there to learn; they're supposed to learn. I can show you lots and lots of great public schools that have also managed to accomplish that feat. And what we need to do is to learn how to take what works in the successful schools, public and private, and make those changes in all of our schools, so that they all work.

There are too many failing schools. There are too many students who are finishing with a substandard education. There are too many dropouts. But the answer for most, for 90 percent of America's children, is going to be to find ways not to bring slow gradual improvement to our public schools, but to bring revolutionary improvement to our schools. After 25 years of trying hard, and learning what works and what doesn't, we know what works. Recruiting more teachers and giving them the training and professional development that they need. Rewarding performance. Smaller class sizes, more one-on-one time. Preschool, so the children are ready for school on day one. Involvement by the parents in the schools, with constant communication between the teachers and the parents. A promise of higher education for all of those who are capable of going, and want to go, regardless of their family income. Connecting the classrooms to the Internet, and giving the teachers the training in how to make exciting use of these new technological improvements.

Now, I would agree with you on every single point that you've made. Still, what do you tell that mother now in Cleveland who has a voucher--is able to use it--are you saying that voucher program shouldn't exist in Cleveland?

The specific state programs that are being tested in the courts--I don't want to comment on the legalities, [the] court challenges that are underway. But let me answer your question in a different way. I don't think that we can tell any parent in this country that they ought to keep their children in a failing school for one more day. The reason why I talk about and fight for revolutionary changes in our public schools is precisely because I've talked to so many parents and have come to understand exactly what they're feeling. They cannot wait. And that's why 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.

Now the difference between Governor Bush and myself is this: I would shut down failing schools and reopen them with a new principal and all of the changes in the teaching staff and everything else that I've described. He would leave the failing school in place, and take money away from the school, and try to convince the parents that it's enough for them to go and pay tuition at a private school, when it's not. It's not.

In terms of cash incentives and cash rewards, I've proposed accountability provisions that would take the administrative funding under Title I away from schools, and reward the ones that are doing well and meeting the achievement standards, and close down the school that's failing, and bring about the revolutionary change I'm talking about. Look at what Governor Hunt does in North Carolina. He had 15 failing schools in North Carolina. [He] shut them down, brought in a new team for each one of them with a new plan and new resources, and now 13 of those 15 schools are in the top rank of high-achieving schools in his state. Now if we had given up on those schools, and abandoned them, and sent the parents off in search of some place that would educate their child for $1,500 a year, then that would be a huge lost opportunity.

When Time Magazine did its survey on your positions on education, and Bush's, they came up with this snap judgment about a month ago saying, the vice president's program provides the money needed, the $115 billion over 10 years, but doesn't have the accountability. Governor Bush's program has the accountability--he'll close down schools--but he's not delivering the money that schools really need, the resources. What I hear new today in your speech here in Dallas, and you saying here, is that you, as a Democrat, are in favor of closing failing schools.

Absolutely. It's not really new. It sounds new, because in the Democratic primaries that particular part of my agenda was never highlighted by the news media, but a year ago I made my first policy speech of the campaign on education reform. And I proposed then closing failing schools, and reopening them with a new principal. I have elaborated on the accountability agenda, but from the start, I've argued that we need both new accountability and new resources. Governor Bush, by contrast, does not really put many new resources in, a very tiny amount. And of course the tax scheme would more than overwhelm that, and almost certainly lead to deep cuts in education spending. And the accountability provisions, I would argue, are entirely inadequate.

Now there is a third element in the plan that I'm putting forward, and that is public school choice, because competition among public schools is a great incentive for the kinds of improvements that are greatly needed....I've already helped to put in place a plan that gives parents in failing schools a public school choice. But 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.

I think there are a lot of positive things about charter schools, but one thing that is slightly controversial about them is...that even though in most cases they are supposed to be non-profit, they can hire for-profit management companies to come in. At the high end, you have companies like Edison that are trying to make money....But the issue really is, is that a good thing, to allow companies to try and make profit, to have for-profit charter schools?

I 'm not sure we have enough evidence on the outcomes yet, I'd like to know more. I've read some glowing reviews of some of Chris Whittle's Edison schools. There are some communities who feel that they're doing and excellent job. But I don't know that we really have enough outcomes to make a judgment on that. Certainly a lot of communities are looking actively at that option but the point is to give them the option to start charter schools according to standards that insure that they're not going to be [bad]. There are some awful charter schools, too, and we need to protect against the terrible failures. And there have been a few of those out there. But by and large, if we give that new competition within the public school system, we're going to see a lot more dynamism and change....

From what we've seen--Oakland, in my San Francisco Bay Area, where the public schools have had serious problems, Cleveland, where we've been--it seems to us that especially urban, black poor America faces a real crisis in the schools. And that there's a certain level of desperation, to come help us out, we're willing to try anything. If it's a voucher, we'll take a voucher. Do you feel that sense of real need?

Absolutely. A year ago, I called the failing schools in America a national emergency, deserving of an appropriate response....That's one of the reasons why I insist upon this approach that I call "revolution improvements," as contrasted with the gradual change that you would normal advocate in a program, or an effort like this. We can't wait. We have to bring about the revolutionary change that's appropriate, especially in these failing schools. That's why I would take an emergency approach. If a school is failing, shut it down today. Recruit a new principal, with the new incentives that I'm proposing. Recruit new teachers. Have a full peer review of the existing teachers. Those who can get the training that is needed to bring them up to standards, good. Those that can't, consistent with due process, we need to make it easier and faster to fire the ones that are making the vast majority who are excellent look bad. Now, [bad teachers are] the minority of the teachers, but we've got to make it easier to get them out of the schools, consistent with due process.

Are you going to be able to bring teachers' unions along with you on that? Some of your biggest supporters, campaign contributors, are teachers' unions. In the past, they've resisted, some of these reforms we're talking about.

I've talked with them, and let me tell you what I've found. I have found the same kind of debate going on in the NEA and the AFT that's going on in the country as a whole. As you would expect, it's more informed because this is their profession and they're extremely familiar with all of the ideas involved. But what I have found is that there are leaders and reformers within those organizations who have been pushing hard to get the kind of accountability that I've been talking about. And I've taken positions that are not the official positions of these organizations, but they are positions that I'm convinced the majority within the organizations are comfortable with and ready for, and that's what political leadership is all about....

On this accountability: we're here in Texas, Governor Bush building on a record of democratic governors here, Mark White and Ann Richards, with the help of Ross Perot, a key advocate of changing the educational system here, upgrading it. Bush did keep this accountability and standards system going.... Doesn't he deserve some credit here, for the same kind of things you're talking about in accountability and standards, statewide tests?

He's avoided the mistake of dismantling what Ann Richards and Mark White did, and Ross Perot deserves a big part of the credit for initiating the reforms that began here years ago. But Governor Bush tried to let schools here in Texas get out of the reform requirement to have lower class size, and he was overruled, in that. He has not come up with any plan to put a qualified teacher in every classroom--[Texas has] a big shortage of teachers. He has not addressed the problem with low compensation, and they are 41st in compensation.

He raised their pay a little bit.

A little bit. . .

Their pay is still very low.

That's correct. And that's why I'm saying look [at] the gradual incremental approach, it's not working. It's just not working. He has opposed construction of new classrooms, and new schools, and modernization of schools, and they have this huge looming shortage of classrooms in Texas, already an existing shortage. I want to address that nationwide and he's opposed those efforts. There's a very low rate of preschool here, and I want to make preschool universal. He hasn't offered any plan to do that. I think that the good work that Mark White and Ann Richards did was not dismantled by Governor Bush, but he hasn't really added to it. And the record is still way, way below the national average. And what's needed is the kind of revolutionary improvement that I'm calling for, and that, I would submit to you, we can bring about, with the kind of comprehensive plan that I propose, with new accountability, new resources, and public school choice.

There are no vouchers except for privately funded programs here in Texas.

They don't work. It's the fool's gold of this debate. It masquerades as enough money for private school tuition. The reality is, it's a tiny down payment, leaving families without the option to pay private school tuition. And some of the sophisticates say, "oh, no, you don't understand, it's not really intended as private school tuition." Well, excuse me, but it's certainly advertised that way. And the campaign certainly presents it that way. And they don't do it here in Texas, nor has he proposed it here in Texas, because the people who follow the debate closely here would rip it apart here in Texas. It doesn't work, and they know that. But on the national stage it's pleasing to the ideological right, and it has been flying under some false colors, in the politics of illusion, as private school tuition. So it's attracted a little more support....

How much does the president have to say about education anyway? This is a double question. Are we in a moment when we can really change public education in this country? And how much can the president really do about it?

We are in a unique moment, with an opportunity that may never come again, to bring about revolutionary improvements in our public schools. The American people know it's necessary. There is a consensus. All it's waiting for is a good plan that people can agree is going to do the job. And we can do it. Now, a president can lead to precisely that kind of change. It's a mistake to say most of the funding is at the state and local level, federal funding is less than 10 percent, so therefore a president can't do that much. That's wrong.

Look at what has happened just in the last few years in wiring the schools to the Internet. We had three percent of the schools when I issued the challenge to do all of the schools. The president put it in his State of the Union address. We mobilized people in every state. Now 65 percent of the schools are wired. No, no, almost 90 percent; 65 percent of the classrooms are wired. This is a dramatic advance. Now, 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." You bet it can be done.

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