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Between Bush and Gore, Who Has Best Education Plan?

Aired August 31, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight: grading the Bush and Gore education plans. As George W. Bush visits his 100th school of the campaign, we ask: Whose plan gets low marks and who goes the head of the class?


On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE: in Memphis, Tennessee, Congressman Harold Ford, state co- chair of the Gore campaign and a member of the House Education Committee; and in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state and a Bush supporter.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

In their war for the White House, both presidential contenders continued their battle today for control of the agenda on the campaign trail today, ignoring each other's taunts and hammering on their respective themes for the week: Al Gore on health care, George W. Bush on education.

Bush visited his 100th school near Toledo, Ohio to highlight his signature issues. Both candidates have detailed education proposals, but with starkly different price tags and philosophical guide posts.

The Bush plan cost $47 billion over 10 years, Gore's $115 billion for the same time frame. Bush's relies on more local control and accountability, Gore on more federal involvement. The biggest battle lines have been drawn over school choice: vouchers. Bush favors; Gore abhors them.

So tonight on CROSSFIRE, as we all prepare to go back to school: the education debate. Do resources or resolve make a greater contribution to educational outcomes? Why is the achievement gap between minorities and white students widening in the '90s? And whose plan will work to close it and improve our schools in general -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. Secretary, good to have you back on CROSSFIRE. Good evening.

KEN BLACKWELL, BUSH SUPPORTER: Bill, good to be with you.

PRESS: I want to start by just asking you what's really going on politically, Mr. Secretary? And I want to quote you one line from the front page of the "Wall Street Journal," hardly a left-wing rag. And here's the very first line in the "Worldwide Round-up" today -- quote -- "Bush tried to shift the campaign focus to education, but health care issues intruded."

Isn't what's happening here that Bush is desperately trying to shift the focus back to education, because he has no plan and nothing to say about health care?

BLACKWELL: Absolutely not. What George Bush has wanted to do this week is to get out his message about leaving no children and no child behind. What he has essentially said is that he wants to focus on reforming our schools across this country. And he understands that too many kids are locked into dysfunctional schools. And they have no way out.

And unlike the late AFT president, Al Shanker, who once said when school children start paying union dues, he will start representing their interests, George Bush wants to represent the interests of all America's children.

PRESS: Well you say leave no child behind -- and we keep hearing that phrase -- but it sounds like empty rhetoric. Yesterday, in Texas, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the state of Texas has failed to provide adequate health care to 1.5 million low-income children under Medicaid. So again, he's leaving one-and-a-half- million kids behind in health care in Texas.

Again, isn't that why he would rather talk about something else?

BLACKWELL: Bill, you and I both know that Texas has a flood of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. The challenge is great. And there have great improvements made in Texas. There is still work to be done. But let's talk about what's happening to those children in the Texas schools.

Texas has a stellar record. They, in fact, are realizing better academic performance among minority children, particularly Latinos and African-Americans. And that's because George Bush has held the schools in Texas accountable, not for numbers that could hide underachieving minority students, but he, in fact -- this aggregates the data and says: You are going to show me how you are educating our kids, all of our kids.

And what they have done in Texas, by holding schools accountable, trying innovative teaching methods, is to improve the academic performance of those students. And what he is doing is keeping his promise. He has left no child behind in Texas when it comes to education.

PRESS: Only on health care.

BLACKWELL: Let's just stay on the subject.

PRESS: Well -- go ahead.

MATALIN: Congressman, let me just play a little clip from our convention. I'm sure you watched it as we watched yours: with great favor.

This is Mrs. Bush.


LAURA BUSH, WIFE OF GEORGE W. BUSH: George's opponent has been visiting schools lately. And sometimes, when he does, he spends the night before at the home of the teacher. Well, George spends every night with a teacher.


MATALIN: OK, Congressman, not quite the lip lock, the kiss that was so prominent at your convention, but I played that to point out that Bush is not trying to change the subject. Education has long been his number one issue in this campaign. It's his number one issue in Texas and the record reflects it. The Texas students lead the nation, and black students in particular lead the nation in performance.

Just this week, we've learned that -- well, let me go to your speech, which I enjoyed so much, too -- when you go to these kindergarten graduations it must break your heart to know, as we have learned this week, that when those kindergarteners graduate from high school, those black students will read and no science and no math at or below the level of 13-year-old white kids. So the achievement gap is closed in Texas, that's the record, and it's widened under the Clinton administration. Bush is doing something right and this administration isn't.

FORD: Well, let me say, as I -- I thank you for showing that part part of the speech, and I'm glad that Vice President Gore and Tipper shared that moment of affection. I think America needed to see it and appreciate it. I think some in the media have questioned it. And I'm glad to know that Governor Bush and his wife share affection for one another too.

What disgruntles me and depresses me when I'm at kindergarten graduations in my district and around the nation is that I know these kids will go on to 1st and 2nd grade and probably not have a classroom consistent with the class size for that teacher to impart knowledge, that many of these schools don't have commodes that flush, neither do they have water fountains that function properly, and in my district, many don't have air conditioning.

I think the key difference between the plans is that Vice President Gore's plan imposes accountability measures, it requires that teachers are teaching and filled by a certain time, and insures that we have classrooms or -- excuse me -- schools that are fit for kids to learn and not necessarily for kids not to learn.

I appreciate what Governor Bush has added to this debate, but the reality is when you talk to parents, you talk to teachers and you talk to students, they all admit that a voucher alone is not going to solve the problem we face in our schools, by providing parents with something that -- providing them with a few dollars to say, you go make up the difference in a private school when 90-plus percent of our kids attend public schools, that's not going to solve the problem alone.

MATALIN: Well...

BLACKWELL: Let me...

FORD: The demonstration project is fine. If can you show me a voucher plan that works, I will...


MATALIN: Congressman, let me...

BLACKWELL: Mary, let me show him -- let me tell him about voucher plans that are working. Just this week, Harvard University professors, professors and researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Brookings Institution -- you know, not bastions of conservative ideology --came out and said that in D.C., the District of Columbia, in Cleveland, Dayton, and in New York, those voucher programs are working. They have, in fact, unlocked a lot of the doors that have kept a lot of students locked into dysfunctional schools, and what they have seen after this two-year study is that the performance rate has increased in D.C. by 9 percent.

FORD: Mr. Secretary, you're absolutely right about the study.

BLACKWELL: So if you want an example...

FORD: But the only problem...

BLACKWELL: Excuse me, let me just talk.

PRESS: Hold on, Ken. Let him respond, please.


BLACKWELL: Let me finish out my thought and then I'll let you respond. The point that I'm making here is that the data begins to debunk the distortions and the lies that these programs are not working.

PRESS: All right, Congressman, go ahead.

FORD: Here is the only challenge, what we ought to be looking at is -- and I would agree those findings are encouraging and I'd love to see next year's findings as well. I'm familiar with the report, as a member of the Education and Workforce Committee. I would love to figure out how we can replicate what's happening in those voucher programs in our public schools.

The reality is that if you gave every parent today a voucher, we would run into the same challenge that we face today on the public side, which is figuring out a way to hire qualified teachers, build enough classrooms, or schools -- excuse me -- for classrooms to accommodate these kids, to ensure that they have the technology in the classroom that they need. I'm in agreement with you, Mr. Secretary, but the problem is when 90 plus percent of our kids are in public schools today, if you gave them all a voucher today, as Governor Bush suggests, that wouldn't solve our problem.


FORD: That would make the private school leaders happy, but that wouldn't solve our problem.

BLACKWELL: Don't misstate Mr. Bush's position.

FORD: What we ought to do is take a look at what's happening in those schools and, again, how to replicate them in public settings.

BLACKWELL: OK, don't misstate...

FORD: And I believe that, in the long term, is going to solve our problems as opposed to...


PRESS: OK, gentlemen...

BLACKWELL: His position is to improve accountability in public schools.

PRESS: Gentlemen, hold on just one second. Go ahead, Mary.

MATALIN: Congressman, let me speak to this issue of resources versus resolve. When those parents of those black students whose performance increased exponentially, the users of these vouchers...

FORD: Nine percent, which is good.

MATALIN: Nine to 12 percent. In Washington, it was quite high. These parents were asked what was the difference, and none of them cited money.

And, in fact, the study showed relative to reducing class sizes -- a study in your own state of Tennessee -- these students did twice -- greater than twice as good. What the parents said is discipline, expectations of more homework, less fighting. The expectations were higher for these students, the discipline was greater. They met the expectations, it wasn't dollars. It was discipline that increased their performance.

FORD: I would agree. And we ought to be doing that in public schools. No public school in America should receive any funding.

And I think there's a misnomer. So many in the other party like to suggest that the federal government is playing such a large role in our K-12 school operations. That's not true. Only 6-7 cents of every dollar spent in K-12 education in American comes from the federal government.

So when you talk about a dichotomy between the two parties, one wanting a larger federal role and one wanting more local authority, if you're going to point the finger and blame someone, which I don't choose to do, you'd have to blame local and state authorities, because frankly, they have failed our kids over the years.

So to suggest that we would have more federal involvement and to suggest that would intrude upon or encroach upon and lessen the ability of locals to educate our kids, I think it's preposterous, so we have to look at ways in which we create a better partnership than we have now, and if the voucher plan works, Mrs. Matalin, I would support it. I just don't understand how you can educate...

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, let me get back to you, because you know what, I have to tell you something, I don't care what these voucher programs show. I don't care. I don't believe it, but I don't care what they show. The fundamental problem I have with it and I want to ask you about is, how under the United States Constitution can you justify taking public tax dollars and putting them into religious schools? Isn't that fundamentally everything this country stands for?

BLACKWELL: Well, I can tell with you what some of the activist judges are saying, is that it is in violation of the establishment cause in terms of separation of church and state, but they miss a point. Those -- the state is not coercing those parents to choose those schools. What we have here is that the judges are interested in -- say they're interested in the separation of church and state, but what they are separating are parents from their rights, their right to choose the best education for their children, and to level the playing field and to give access to too many Latino and African-American students who are locked into these schools that don't work. And you can defend those schools if you want to, but I can tell you right now, in 1954, around Brown versus the Board of Education, the issue was bigotry. And in 1957 in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the problem was bigotry. The problem here in the year 2000 is bureaucracy, and people who are so interested in protecting the bureaucracy and its practices, and teachers unions that they misrepresent the interests of school children and parents.

PRESS: Congressman, a very point before we break -- go ahead.

FORD: I'm just curious, what is it that's happening in these private schools with vouchers that we can replicate in public schools? It would seem to me, instead of us debating here whether or not we ought to have vouchers or not, we ought to be looking at the overwhelming majority of children whom are in public schools. How can we replicate what's happening in private schools in public schools. And I'll tell you, you have smaller class sizes, better teachers, you have qualified teachers in classrooms, you have the technology in the classroom that is needed. Those are the areas we ought to be focusing. We're wasting time on this false debate.


PRESS: Mr. Secretary, hold on just a second. I'm sorry, I've got to cut you off, because we have to take a break. We're going to take up the congressman's challenge right on that point when we come back. Is, in fact, more money the answer? More CROSSFIRE coming up.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Everybody knows public schools are in trouble and nobody is really sure how to fix them. But Al Gore and George Bush want to give it their best shot. Bush would spend $25 billion on schools over the next five years; Gore, $115 billion over the next 10, but is more money the answer?

We test the candidates on education tonight with Republican Ken Blackwell, Ohio Secretary of state, joining us from Cincinnati; and Democrat Harold Ford Jr., congressman from Tennessee, who joins us from Memphis -- Mary.

MATALIN: Hey, congressman, let me read you something that your vice presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman, had to say. Quote: "There are some who dismiss suggestions of school choice programs and charter schools out of hand, direly predicting that these approaches will 'ruin' the public schools. The undeniable reality here is that this system is already in ruins, and to blindly reject new models and refuse to try new ideas is simply foolish."

Congressman, you are not -- you're saying, let's try everything, but your presidential candidate bragged in the primaries that for 18 years, he's fought against vouchers. This just isn't about vouchers. It's about not trying anything new because he's a captive of the teachers unions who don't want to try anything new.

FORD: Before Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected, there was one chartered school in America. Today, there are more than 1,500, and we look to double that number. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were both leaders on that front.

You know, over the past eight years, you've seen the teachers unions, both the AFT and NEA, come a long way on standards and accountability, largely because this administration has led. I think we ought to be very careful when we draw or try to create tension between federal and local involvement. Again, if you want to point fingers, virtually all the policy setting, and 94 cents of every dollar raised and spent for public education is done at the local level. So we ought to, as we talk about sending more power and dollars back to the state, be careful in how we do that. I think there is a federal role in ensuring that all kids can add, subtract, multiply, divide and read and write. And where you find that models that work, I can assure you the Gore-Lieberman administration will support it.

For Gore to have selected Lieberman, someone who had slightly different views and perhaps more progressive views on education at times, I think is a signal that he's willing and ready to support those things that work.

If you gave every child a voucher today, Secretary Blackwell, you and I both know that there are not enough private school slots in America to accommodate them.

BLACKWELL: You don't need private schools. This is not an attack on public schools.

FORD: Or any schools for that matter.

BLACKWELL: How do we make public schools and private schools better? You in fact do that by breaking down monopolies and creating a competitive system where schools have an incentive to improve.

Look, let's go to Cleveland, where we're talking about real lives and real children. In Cleveland, what you have is about $3,300 dollars per student being spent as compared to about $6,500 in the Cleveland public schools, a school system where -- that has met none of the performance standards -- 27 performance standards.

What we see is an improvement in math and reading scores. And I'd say, you know: Right, let's replicate it. But the school system will have no incentives if you don't have that creative...


FORD: And there's nothing wrong with that, Secretary Blackwell.

BLACKWELL: Right -- and innovation.

FORD: But to suggest for a moment, as Mr. Bush does, that you need no dollars for pre-K or early childhood development, no dollars for that stuff...

BLACKWELL: Nobody is saying that, and you know that, Congressman Ford.

FORD: Well, that's his plan. We can't get around the facts. I know we may want to. No money for after-school programs, and a very small component for higher education.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Secretary, let me jump...

FORD: These things have to be invested in too.


PRESS: Please, gentlemen.


PRESS: Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about this question of money. And again, I want to go back to the front page of the "Wall Street Journal," the very top item on the business bulletin: teachers today spending more money out of their own pockets to buy basic supplies than ever before. In Houston last year, the Federation of Teachers says its teachers spent $750-1000 each out of their own pocket.

Mr. Secretary, pumping more money may not be the only answer, but it's got to be part of the answer, doesn't it?

BLACKWELL: Well -- and what we know is President -- a President Bush would in fact direct more money than is presently being directed towards education. But it would be targeted money.

FORD: That's not true.

BLACKWELL: And it would geared towards the disadvantaged students. I think it's ironic here: You know, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman can send their children to private schools...

PRESS: Oh, that's not the issue.

BLACKWELL: ... and Congress -- more members of Congress can do that. But they want to limit it when it comes to Latino and African- American students.

PRESS: Secretary...

BLACKWELL: I can tell you right now, I'm glad to have a presidential candidate that's on the side of black students and Latino students, who are disadvantaged. And he's an advocate for leveling the playing field...

PRESS: We're not -- pardon me.


PRESS: We're almost out of time. You're just filibustering here. You're filibustering on the voucher issue. (CROSSTALK)

PRESS: I want to ask you back about the money. Another thing that's important are teachers: eight billion dollars for teacher's salary raises in the Gore plan; zero in the George Bush plan -- eight billion dollars for bonuses to recruit new teachers under Al Gore; zero under George Bush.

Again, doesn't the money have to be there for the teachers to do the job?

BLACKWELL: And the money is there. What Governor Bush says is: Let's give the states more latitude. What he is interested in is


FORD: But the teacher quality -- not necessarily teacher quality.


MATALIN: We are delighted that you both know so much about each of your candidate's plans.

Thank you for joining us. BLACKWELL: Thank you for having me.

FORD: Thank you for having me.

MATALIN: Great advocates both: Ken Blackwell and Congressman Ford.

FORD: Give Jim Carville my regards too.

MATALIN: Bill and I will be right back with our preschool debate.

Stay with us.


MATALIN: A lot of the misstatement about the Bush plan: There is preschool. There is after-school money in there. There is money for teachers. Why you don't want to talk about vouchers is because they work. And you know where the greatest problem in our educational system is today: with poor kids, with inner-city kids, with minority kids.

And this study showed that with increased use of vouchers, that achievement gap would be closed in subsequent years -- closed. There would be no difference in achievement between black and white kids. That...

PRESS: You know what happens with vouchers? Let me tell you what happens with vouchers. The private school -- the religious school says: We are not going take you because you are disabled. We are not going to take you because you have a learning disability. We are not going take you because we don't like the way you dress.

They can cherry-pick the students. You leave all the problems to the public schools. You take money out of the public schools. It's a disastrous program. It's only being tried in three parts in this country, Mary. You can't say they work.

MATALIN: You know what? And 70 percent of non-white parents want it. It's working for their kids.

PRESS: I don't care. Put the money -- improve the public schools. That's the answer.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin.

Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.



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