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Can Bush Reform the Nation's Education System?

Aired January 23, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Educational excellence for all is a national issue and, at this moment, is a presidential priority.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: reading, writing, arithmetic and reform. Can Bush reform the nation's education system? Are vouchers the best way to do it?


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: I just don't think it's going to -- that President Bush's education proposal -- has many good parts to it -- is going to get passed with this current voucher part in it.


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE: On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a member of the Education Committee, and in Lansing, Michigan, Republican Governor John Engler.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

School days, school days. It's more than three hours these days. It's five. Add reform and rhetoric: but what kind of reform and how heated the rhetoric? That's the debate, which President Bush kicked off today as promised, making education the first priority of his new administration. Bush's plan calls for annual tests for reading and math skills for grades three through eight, more money for teacher training and limited vouchers for parents who want to put their kids in a better school.

Bush's attention to schools won the praise of leading Democrats, but not the details of his plan. In fact, Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh introduced their own competing education proposal today, with more money than Bush and no vouchers. That's where the battle lines are drawn. Will Democrats and Republicans be able to come together on an education plan? Will vouchers fly? Or are vouchers even constitutional? Sitting in again tonight on the right: former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who also served as undersecretary of education during the Reagan administration -- Gary.


Senator, good to have you on tonight.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE (D), MINNESOTA: Good to be here with you.

BAUER: Senator, I almost drove off the road this afternoon when I heard Ted Kennedy basically endorse the Bush education plan. But then when I listened carefully, it was pretty clear he liked the spending, but he didn't like the education choice. Why are you liberals for choice on everything except an inner-city parent being able to choose their school?

WELLSTONE: You know, I don't even know what the spending is going to be, by the way. Well, a couple things. Before you take money away from public schools here, you ought to make sure that you do what is right for kids. And in all due respect, I don't know what Ted was saying about the budget.

You just can't have kind of the slogan or the rhetoric about leaving no child behind unless you are willing to make the investment. You can't do it on a tin-cup budget. You got to make sure that kids come to kindergarten ready to learn. And we all know that. The evidence suggests that. But you can't do that on the cheap. So the question is: Where is investment in early childhood development? Where is the commitment to Title I? Where is the investment in what's called the idea program school districts right now -- don't have the federal dollars they are supposed to get for kids with special needs?

Where is the commitment to make sure that every child will have the opportunity to achieve? That is what is wrong with moving to vouchers. Once we do that and make the commitment to these kids, these schools, and if that doesn't work, come back and talk to me about taking money away from public education -- but not now.

BAUER: Senator, when I was undersecretary of education, the Budgets Department $18 billion. It's up over $40 billion now. Now, I know you care about inner-city families. Let me just mention one statistic to you. A study just done a few months ago: Kids in Washington, D.C. that got a voucher -- minority children -- one year after they used it, their test scores were nine points ahead of their public-school peers. Isn't this something that a liberal like you should be in favor of? This is going to help those black parents and their children.

WELLSTONE: Well, you know, I'm glad to hear that there is evidence of this working in D.C., although I got to tell you, the studies on the voucher program have been very mixed. Overall, you take a little bit of money for these kids and they are supposed to be able to go to these exclusive private schools. They are not going to be able to afford it. And second of all, you take money out of public education. Why aren't you interested in making the investment? We all want to have our pictures taken next to small children. It's great symbolic politics. We are all for the children except when it comes to digging into the pocket and making the real investment. Why don't we do that?

PRESS: Governor Engler, I want to pick up there on his -- Senator Wellstone's point. You have had your experience, recent experience, and long experience in Michigan with vouchers.


PRESS: But isn't this really a cruel joke that President Bush is playing on the American public? The max you would get out his program three years from now would be $1,500 for a family. This afternoon, the new senator from my home state of Delaware, Senator Tom Carper, I think put his finger right on what is wrong with that whole proposal. Please listen to him.


SEN. TOM CARPER (D), DELAWARE: In all due respect, that's an empty promise. Private school, parochial schools in my state, you can't get your kid in with an education for $1,500. It just is an empty promise.


PRESS: That's what it is, Governor, isn't it? Fifteen-hundred dollars is not going to buy you tuition to any private school.

ENGLER: That's not what the proposal is, as I understand it. I think that what the administration and what President Bush is talking about is, the child is trapped in a failing school. That means the school is not helping that child become a reader or become proficient in math. Then we're saying let that child maybe go to another school, a private program, maybe the literacy counsel locally, and learn how to read.

Let him go get a private tutor and make up for the deficiency. They can take the Title I money -- which is a federally targeted program for disadvantaged young people -- and let him go and see if he can't get what he's not getting from his school. It's a program that only, under this proposal, kicks in, I think, in three years if the school has failed for three additional years not to be able to do a breakthrough on reading and math instruction. It seems to me that there have to be some consequences that go along with the accountability.

Otherwise, then we're simply debating about how much more money, how much more resource to send to the schools, which are proving year after year -- and would now prove for three additional years -- they can't get the job down.

PRESS: Well, Governor, I looked at the programs today. It does say: You take this money. For the first two years, you can take it to another public school. After three years, you can take it to another public school or a private school. And the second part of it is: Not only is it not enough dough, but as Senator Wellstone pointed out, that the -- you are taking the money away from the existing school, thereby making the existing school worse.

Senator, I want to listen to one more of these Democratic senators, if I may, because I thought he made the point so clearly. This is Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader -- now -- who was on Fox News just this past Sunday. Please listen.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), MINORITY LEADER: Giving the money to run doesn't seem to me to as efficient a way to try to address the problem than to solve the problems right there, using those facilities. What are we going to do with that school if all the students leave?


PRESS: Isn't that the answer: fix the school that is there?

ENGLER: Well, parents and children don't want to leave schools that are working. Let's start with that. In fact, they want to go to good schools. And they work hard to try to get into them. Before we had public-school choice that was as open as it is in Michigan today, we literally had parents trying to mislead the schools about where they actually lived in order to sneak their child into another public school.

We have pretty wide-open public-school choice in Michigan. Different states have different rules. What the Bush plan is built on is the flexibility to solve the problems. Let me make one other point: Since we're only talking about the vouchering proposal at the end of three years, do I assume then that we are in agreement on all of the reading and math assessment...


ENGLER: ... that we're in agreement on teacher training? We're reaching all the other components because I think that's very good starting point then. And I'm willing to move on.


WELLSTONE: I want to get to that.

PRESS: Senator Wellstone, go ahead.

WELLSTONE: Well, first of all...

ENGLER: Well, there's a lot in this plan for children. And that's what the bottom line is.

BAUER: But John -- but listen, two things. Number one -- and you have talked about it -- I listened to your words carefully -- public-school choice: That's a different issue. And when we have got charter schools. We've got schools within schools. We've got alternative schools. We've got magnet schools. There should be different ways of teaching and different ways of learning. I'm all for that. But here is the question:


ENGLER: The only issue is a private organization or a private or nonpublic school. We're wide open in the public then.


BAUER: Let me tell you what the real issue is. I want to make this an ecumenical discussion. There is an old Yiddish proverb that says you can't dance at two weddings at the same time. In all due respect, if you've got $1.6 trillion of tax cuts, and you care about Social Security, and you care about Medicare, and are you going to expand the military budget dramatically, there isn't going to be one dollar that is going to enable these children to have the opportunity to succeed. You are going to have these tests.

Do you think Michigan and Minnesota are going to like to have these tests every year, these standardized tests, with teachers having to teach to it, kids having to learn to it? It's educationally deadening. You're setting them all up for failure because you are not making the investment -- and you know this, Governor -- in early childhood development. Let's make investment so these kids come to school ready to learn. There will be no money in the president's budget.


PRESS: Go ahead, Governor.

ENGLER: That's a long comment. Let's me just in on this. The one strategy that might be for those who favor education and spending, let's pass this program quick. And then maybe can you argue the tax cut ought to be reduced later on. Don't let it languish. Maybe the collision of priorities will happen. I say do it now and do it quick.


BAUER: Senator Wellstone, we have vouchers already. When I -- I'm the son of a janitor. I wouldn't have been able to go to college without a voucher called a Pell Grant. And I could take that to the University of Kentucky, a public school, or I could take it to a good Catholic school like Notre Dame. Why not give younger children the same rich variety of educational choices that I had as a high school graduate back in Newport, Kentucky?

WELLSTONE: Why not right now, make the investment in the health and skills and intellect and character of young people, starting with what we know really pays off, which is early childhood development, and make sure that all these schools -- public schools have good teachers and make sure they have the resources to work with, so that these kids have a chance to do well. Why don't you want to make that commitment first before you take money out of public education. BAUER: It's not either or. President Bush proposed more education spending than, quite frankly, most of us conservatives would feel comfortable with. He's upping the budget a lot more than we ever have in the past.

WELLSTONE: Listen. Excuse me, I will say to Governor Engler, I would be willing to say vouchers is a non starter; it is not going to happen. So, then, the rest of this proposal; if you want to have these tests every year and you want to have a variety of ways of testing kids, not one standardized test, and you want to make sure you are not setting these kids and teachers and schools up for failure, because you have done the investment to make sure these kids have a chance to achieve and do well, I am all for that; but you want to know something? It can't be done on a tin-cup budget.


ENGLER: Let me tell you that it's not. In America, nearly $400 billion annually -- the federal budget has never been more than ten percent of the total expenditure, most of it is state and local dollars. I will tell you who is getting set up for failure; it's the child who is in a school that doesn't learn to read and can't do math -- that's the risky proposition that we've got in America today, that we're saying, every child has to learn to read. I think we can agree on that. That fundamentally...


ENGLER: If we count with the $400 billion that we're spending today to teach every child in America to read...

WELLSTONE: That's not early childhood development. That's not on Head Start. You have got to get to the kids before they get to kindergarten -- you know that!

ENGLER: We are proposing, even in this budget, even some reforms, some greater coordination with Head Start, but that's not true. We have a lot of examples of children coming to school who arrived in this country two months ago, never had any education before they got to school, and don't even speak our language, and guess what? With good teachers and proper training, boom, they are learning English, and they are graduating as Valedictorians.


PRESS: I hate to interrupt this. Gentlemen, I hate to interrupt this discussion, but as a former teacher, I am going to say, both of you, sit down and just be quiet for just a second. We will take a break and when we come back let's pick up right there -- about this testing; is teaching kids to take tests the best way for them to learn, when we come back.


BAUER: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Gary Bauer, president of American Values -- we're talking about the Bush education reform proposal tonight, with reform-minded governor John Engler of Michigan and former college professor, now senator, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. I'm holding down for the fort for the right, and on the left, we have the still sadly misguided, unreconstructed liberal Bill. Take it away Bill.

PRESS: Paul, he's here for one night, and he insults me. I can't understand it.

WELLSTONE: I have to admit this right on CROSSFIRE. I like him. I mean, I don't know what to say.


PRESS: Governor Engler, I want to come back to you with a confession. When I went to the University of Niagra, I took biology, I passed biology, I didn't learn a damn thing in biology class -- all I learned was, how to take the test, because at that campus, you can always get copies of last year's test and the year before that and the year before that, and all we did ways study the test. Isn't that -- shame on me I guess -- but, isn't that the problem with teaching kids to take tests; and that emphasis on testing, that's all they will learn, they will not learn the subject, they will learn the questions on the test.

ENGLER: Well, we have schools where they can't even, apparently, do that. The reality is there is nothing wrong with teaching to the tests if the test is measuring the right things and clearly there are some very fine testing instruments. Our state testing program is recognized as being an excellent one, been around for 20-plus years; certainly, for the very best students in this state, the SAT is considered a very reliable indicator of how they will do in college and many base admissions on that basis.

So there is, in my judgment, an urgent need and Jim Hunt in North Carolina and George W. Bush as governor in Texas -- both those states showed, with the minority populations -- Hispanic and African-American -- when they started dis-aggravating the data and really focused on each individual child, grade by grade, then guess what? The teachers started doing the same thing, and guess what? The test scores rose faster for those disadvantaged populations in those states than any other, and that's a national report -- came out of Bill Clinton and Dick Riley's education department.

PRESS: Well, I will give you another one, from the Pew Charitable Trust, which is hardly a partisan organization. Just this month, released a report -- they did a survey nationwide -- 66% of teachers said, when they were told, now we will do this annual testing, they ignored important areas of education and learning, and all they did was focus on getting kids ready for the tests, so the test scores may go up, governor -- it doesn't mean the kids know anything.

ENGLER: I believe that they will learn more. I believe that we will not have the other kind of data we have seen today where its something like 70% of 4th graders in urban America can't read at a grade level. Those are staggering rates of failure. We cannot save our cities without saving our schools and we have to have every child in a learning environment and how is it that there is time for something else in the day, but not time to teach children how to read, regardless of their preparation, regardless, frankly, of the support they are getting at home; we know everything works better when the teacher is supported by a loving parent at home who is working with the child.

I have three 6-year-old daughters, and my wife and I work with them, and guess what? They're doing wonderfully well. But not every parent does that, but even when they don't, give the teacher the support.

PRESS: Senator, do you want to jump in?

WELLSTONE: Well, there is some common ground here. I mean, here is what I think we need to do: we need to make a distinction between accountability. You need to have accountability. But everybody in the testing area, everybody -- says, you can't rely on one standardized test, that's an abusive testing -- you have to have multiple measures. So we have to make sure, number one, it's done right.

Second of all, even in Texas, the Rand study -- that's hardly an ultraliberal organization, showed that the scores went up when it was teaching to the test, but when there was another test, the scores went down. What you don't want to have is drill education, where teachers have to teach to the tests, kids have to learn how to take these standardized test, consultants are brought in -- that was the case in some Houston schools, to teach the teachers and the students how to get ready for these tests.

It's educationally deadening and, frankly, a lot of really good teachers are not going to teach in these kind of schools in these kind of communities, if they have be involved in drill education. We better make sure that we do this right, and I'm very worried that we won't.

And then the final point: on accountability, the governor was talking about the schools. How about the decision makers? How about holdings us accountable for making sure we get the resources to the schools and to the teachers and to the kids, so every one of these kids can do well.


ENGLER: I agree with that. Let me add another point of consensus, because the governors and the local leaders around the country agree with the senator. We say, Washington, hold us accountable, give us the flexibility the president's proposed. Give us the freedom that he has proposed, allow us to do this annual assessment -- you look at us and you pick out, across the country, those of us that are doing a good job and say, way to go, and to those of us who are lagging behind, you say, come on, work harder, work smarter. See, we can make that work. It isn't Washington that's going to be held accountable, because that isn't where the schools are. At the state level, we have to look at the local community, and then we look the local school building and we need to know how building A is doing compared to building B or C, because, guess what? That all matters and we have to look at that over a period of years, and as the president proposes in this wonderful plan that he's put forward tonight, let's say to those who are doing well, way to go, here is some more resources for you, and those who consistently don't...


WELLSTONE: By the way, I don't think it's a wonderful plan -- I think it's not a great step forward, it's a great leap sideways, because there's no investment of resources...

ENGLER: Senator, I don't know what your plan is, but I want to see that, in order to compare it.


BAUER: Hold it just a second.

Let's talk about the money issue, because you keep coming back to that. Your state, senator, spends about $6300 per student and you are number one in the nation in education performance. District of Columbia spends about $10,000 per student -- it's in last place. If money is the only thing that matters, shouldn't it be reversed?

WELLSTONE: Money is not a sufficient condition for doing well for children or children doing well, but it's a necessary condition. In all due respect, including in Minnesota, I'm in a school every two weeks -- many inner city, many small town rural; I will tell you a lot of these kids come from families where English is the second language, a lot of these kids in the inner city, their parents move three and four times a year because of lack of affordable housing. They come to kindergarten -- the crisis in education, is that too many children come to kindergarten way behind and then they fall further behind.

All of the evidence suggests we ought to make the commitment to early childhood development -- this is not in the president's proposal.

BAUER: Senator, isn't the evidence overwhelming there, that the more money we throw at the problem, the more the educational bureaucracy soaks up, and the parents and teachers and students that the money was intended for, get a very small percentage.

WELLSTONE: Didn't you hear what I said? I said early childhood development -- pre-kindergarten.

PRESS: Yes. Governor, We are just about out of time, but I want to ask you a question on that money, because I hear what President Bush is saying, but in his program, he is spending $4.7 billion a year on schools, $160 billion a years on a tax cut, that's 32 times what he's spending on schools -- he's not putting his money where his mouth is, is he? ENGLER: That's wrong. We're spending $400 billion as a nation -- in Michigan alone -- it isn't Washington's issue, state and local government have historically funded education. Washington can help with the margin -- free us and hold us accountable. In Washington, D.C., $220,000 for a classroom of 20 youngsters; it seems to me that we can hire a teacher -- we can hire more than one or two aides, and we can work with those children year around for that kind of money. So, money isn't the answer, it's the will, and George Bush puts the will in there.

PRESS: That's just the beginning of debate. Tonight, we will have to continue, because we are out of time for now. Governor Engler, thanks for joining us. Senator Wellstone, I know you are both going to be leaders on this fight -- we will hear from you again, and you will hear from Gary Bauer and me in just a couple minutes with our closing comments. Stay tuned.


BAUER: Bill, when I was undersecretary of education, I had 5,000 bureaucrats working for me -- they were nice people, but they all thought they knew how to run the schools better than parents and local school boards. Why can't you liberals get it? Washington is not the answer to the crisis.

PRESS: Well, when I was a school teacher, I had 55 kids in my classroom, which was way too many, and the first thing we had to do, was reduce the size of classes. This plan does nothing about that, the other thing -- we ought to pay teachers what they are worth, this plan does nothing about that. You know, I like his emphasis on schools, but I think his plan doesn't do anything.

BAUER: The budget at the Department of Education, Bill, is already over $40 billion, not one dollar out of ten of that gets to the classroom. This bureaucracy in Washington can eat money faster than we can take it out of their pockets of taxpayers.

PRESS: You can get it into classrooms, but don't put it into vouchers. You know as well as I, vouchers are a way of putting public money into religious schools -- it's unconstitutional, and it's never going to fly -- it's dead on arrival.

BAUER: ...Supreme Court, it is going to be constitutional.

PRESS: They may try, but it's simply wrong. You can't do that -- it's clearly a violation of separation of church and state.

BAUER: I don't think so.

PRESS: I see that evil in your eye. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Watch out. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

BAUER: From the right, I'm Gary Bauer, join us tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE. Thanks for being with us.



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