the battle over school choice

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interview: molly ivins

Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist for her home paper, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram. A three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, she is the former co-editor of The Texas Observer, the former Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The New York Times, and co-author of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, published in February 2000.
We are looking at the politics of education and education in the state of Texas. You being an expert on the state of Texas and the author of a new book, George W. Bush. I want to ask you this: he is campaigning around the country now talking about the Texas miracle in education and you define the Texas miracle in your book as how we rocketed from abysmal to pretty damn good in just 30 years.

That's right. I really think the single most important thing to remember about trying to fix the schools is that there is no such thing as an instant result. It takes at least ten years. Sometimes it takes 20 before you can see whether or not what you tried to do back here actually worked. And so, the fact [is] that, before Bush was ever elected governor, school scores were going up, the minority kids were making real progress, and we had a system of school accountability in place. None of that is down to Bush.

What's annoying about Bush and education is that he's claiming credit for things he does not deserve credit for. But he does deserve some credit. I mean why couldn't he just claim credit for what he's done. It's maddening. It's getting to a point where those who sort of fought and died on the field of school reform in this state--and a lot of people did, politically, in their careers on it--are getting pretty chapped with Bush taking all the credit....It was not until 1982, '83 under Mark White...The real players in that fight were Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, Comptroller Bob Bullock and Governor Mark White, in order of their importance of course. And the outside player who really should be given credit is, of all people, H. Ross Perot.

What's annoying about Bush and education is that he's claiming credit for things he does not deserve credit for . . . . It's maddening. Mark White had named Perot to head up a blue ribbon task force to study what was wrong with Texas schools. And as you can imagine, one more blue ribbon task force rarely changes history. But Ross Perot of course is an absolute tornado of energy. And he swept around the state--and education is a long time interest of his, he really does know a lot about it--and he, among other things, went all over the state preaching to businessmen and business groups and chambers of commerce. Look you all, if we don't improve the public schools, you all aren't going to have workers who are worth anything. Your businesses will go to pot. And of course it's a perfectly legitimate argument and nobody can make it with, with more vigor than H. Ross.

And so we really do owe [Perot] a lot and he came up with a package of proposed reforms which wound up in the legislature as the notorious House Bill 72. And there was a pitched battle, the likes of which you would not believe, trying to get that thing passed because, among other things, Ross Perot had suggested that we should mandate that unless you [are] passing all your school courses, you cannot play football....

So there we were with a really pretty impressive set of things that we were going to do to improve the public schools. For us, this was a giant step forward. Unfortunately, it was at the very moment of the oil bust in the mid-80s and the state was then almost entirely dependent on oil income and, damn, the money was gone. So implementing these reforms, and, particularly, [equalizing] the spending between the rich districts and the poor districts, really fell by the wayside. But we had a sort of road map of how to get there if we ever got any money again. That was mostly Bob Bullock, the late Bob Bullock. And, I think the single most significant reform in House Bill 72 was mandating smaller class sizes in grades one through three. You cannot have more than 22 students in a classroom in first through third grades in this state. And let me tell you that is, I think if you were to name one thing, the one that has made just a world of difference. This issue watched our kids get better....

At any rate, so there we were in '83. From '83 onward you can really see the Texas schools start to get better. And I'm not claiming they're terrific now--there are still some real weaknesses--but I do think that putting in a standards test was useful. Now what we did with the TAAS test, which painfully stands for Texas Academic Achievement Skills test, is we set the standard low. It's very low. What you have to know in order to be graduated and promoted is not going to knock anybody's socks off. That's the smart thing to do. [If the state] suddenly tried to put in a really high standard of excellence, all that would have happened was that every kid in the state would flunk. Start fairly low and then inch up little by little. That's what you do....Another player who deserves credit, Ann Richards. When Ann was governor she named a guy named Skip Mino commissioner of education. And it was Skip Mino who came up with this accountability system.

So we're doing well....The other, of course, major thing that was done before Bush ever thought about running for governor, is that we finally started making real strides towards equalizing spending between the rich districts and the poor districts. And this, again, was done at enormous political cost. And many people sort of paid with their political lives for this. And then to hear Bush claim credit for it, as you can imagine, chafes people quite badly....

But Bush does deserve some credit on education. Here's the infuriating part. Number one he didn't do anything to screw things up. And believe me he could have. Number 2 he was really a good player in his first session [of] '95 on rewriting the Texas education code.... And reforming an education code was, as I [said], not really a great battle. But it took some effort, took a push, and was certainly a step in the right direction....

By the '99 session, Bush was pretty busy running for president. He really wasn't paying that much attention. Then, of course in '99, the thing he tried to get done was vouchers, school vouchers. And he had sort of promised that to the Christian Right and in one of the more hilarious moments of all time, he needed one more Republican vote in the senate, which, in theory, he [needed to have] in order to get the bill onto the floor. And [he] personally jawboned senator Drew Nixon, who has the distinction of being the last guy in the Texas legislature most recently convicted of your felony crime. And Drew got convicted for soliciting a prostitute and illegal possession of a weapon. And he had to serve six months in a half way house while he was also serving in the Texas senate. So Drew's prospects of reelection really didn't look that bright. And you would think that he might have responded to his popular leader, but you would be wrong. Bush couldn't turn that one vote. And so his long promised voucher thing went down the tubes.

And then sometimes with Bush--this is another thing you have to watch with education reform--I know it's all [these] boring policy wonk words--but implementation is often critical, and here's an example. Bush came in. He was red hot for charter schools. He thought charter schools [were a] big part of the solution to the problem of public schools. For all I know, they may turn out to be an excellent idea. But what happens, the way you always start a government program is you take a little baby step.... So we started by chartering 17 of these schools, and we were going to wait a year or two to see how they were doing but Bush was so keen on this idea and, you see, he's not a guy who is interested in policy. He may or may not have great ideas, but he's not interested in exactly how you shape policy....

I think we chartered over 200 of these schools the next year. And, of course, there were exactly two people in the Texas education agency who were supposed to be in charge of this process. They were totally overwhelmed. We were giving charters to people who were totally unqualified. People with no education, people with financially questionable past....

As you can imagine, there was just one disaster after another. Some people would spend all the money fixing up the building and then they'd be flat out of money before the school year started, and never admitted a single student. In a rather notorious case in Waco, there was so much financial mismanagement that the school just had to be flat shut down. And [there] were all those Waco kids [who] just lost an entire year of education. And this was not, unfortunately, a terribly rare event. Now, as I say, it may be [that] the charter schools will turn out to be a good idea. But when you just do things that stupidly you're inviting disaster. We wasted millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money because we didn't do it carefully....

Does it strike you as ironic that you have George Bush as the likely nominee of the Republican Party at the moment running very hard to the right to get all the votes he can, but when you look at his record, just on education, Texas, in some ways, he governed like a Democrat. Didn't he? Or, kept going with [what]Democrats had initiated.

Yes, he kept going what Democrats had initiated. Of course, there were hardly any Republicans in the early pioneer days of Texas. And then he went along with the Democrats on, again, what was a great effort, even though it wasn't passed. Bush has always done a really brilliant balancing act between the opposing factions within his own party. So this man has real political skills. And I do not denigrate people with political skills. A good politician is a keeper. And what Bush has done is straddle the divide between the Christian Right and the "country club conservatives."

But in this gap between those two segments of the Republican Party, occasionally [it] looks like a chasm and the Christian Right has completely taken over the machinery of the party. They have, their chair or the vice chairs everything, just right down to the ground. And of course this has left your country club conservatives, some of them, feeling quite sour about the whole thing. And so between these two factions Bush has done a really beautiful straddle. And of course the artful political straddle calls for a fair amount of fudging. And sometimes what you do is you talk one way and you don't so much do another way, but you just don't do very much. And, to some extent, I think that's Bush's history with the Christian Right. He talks a good game but he has not really, really pushed for very many of the things that are dear to their hearts....

You say in the book--and this is an old maxim for politics--"Would you rather be smart, or would you rather be lucky?" Now, on education, George Bush inherits this whole program, virtually--accountability standards, small classes, more money spent on schools.

Yeah, and it is an old truism in politics, "It's better to be lucky than smart." And Bush locked into such a deal. We were just starting to see the payoff from all those terrible fights that we went through in the 80s, the early 80s, the late 80s. The scores were getting better. The minority kids were doing much better. The whole system of accountability for the schools was already in place. All he had to do was just ride that horse to the finish line. And, credit to him that he didn't pull back on the reins. But the amount of credit he deserves for the whole thing--I try to give him credit for what he deserves credit for--but it's pretty maddening when you see him claiming so much....

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