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Should Education Reform Include Vouchers?

Aired May 3, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, HOST: Tonight: reading, writing, arithmetic, and rejection. Private-school vouchers are thrown out of the Bush education bill, and has it now lost the support of conservatives?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak.

In the crossfire, Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, and Republican Congressman Bob Schaffer from Colorado, member of the Education Committee.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

From the very start of his presidential campaign, George W. Bush put education on top of his agenda. And now, President Bush is seeing bipartisan progress made on education, in a House committee and on the Senate floor. So why are some Republicans less than deliriously happy?

Well, maybe the bill is just too bipartisan. The one educational reform that is really beloved on the right, private school choice, often called vouchers, was stripped out of the bill yesterday by the House Education Committee when five Republicans defected.

That leaves a bill requiring annual student testing and more federal funds, not as much as Democrats want, but more than conservatives prefer. For example, $1 billion a year for the next five years to improve reading. Is this a Republican bill? Better still, will it really improve America's schools? -- Bill.

PRESS: Congressman, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

REP. BOB SCHAFFER (R), COLORADO: Well, thank you.

PRESS: You know, from the beginning of his campaign and all through the campaign and then since he's been in the White House, the cornerstone of President Bush's education package has been school vouchers. And yet now, reaching out to Democrats, he's been willing to drop it, a move that has made some conservatives unhappy. Let me ask you to listen to one, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BILL BENNETT, FORMER EDUCATION SECRETARY: I am not saying, gee, the president has to run this gauntlet in order to get my applause, you know, that he's got to win all this. But he's got to fight for it. This is his signature issue. This was the issue he did so well on in Texas and this was a great set of proposals. So come on, Mr. President, fight for it.


PRESS: Do you think he gave up to easily? Do you think he rolled over too easily?

SCHAFFER: I think perhaps he did, but he didn't do it alone. He did it, clearly, with the cooperation of House leaders and Senate leaders in both cases, really did not push Republicans hard enough to maintain their support for what has really has been the core of the president's plan all along.

It was stripped out the bill yesterday, that's unfortunate. Conservatives are fighting to try to salvage the president's bill in the House right now. And we are working to provide some conservative elements of choice and flexibility back into the bill so that this gets closer and back along the lines of what the president originally proposed.

PRESS: Well, it seems to me it's not just the voucher issue, it's the whole question about his approach to the Department of Education. I mean, I always remember Republican mantra, starting with Newt Gingrich, you know, abolish the Department of Education. Even Lamar Alexander, former secretary, said abolish it.

In 1996 the Republican party platform said get rid of the Department of Education, and now, here's George W. Bush, he's giving it more money, he's calling for national standards which might even lead to a national curriculum. So, is this the new Republican agenda is, a bigger, bigger, bigger Department of Education and a bigger federal role?

SCHAFFER: Well, that is the platform that the president, frankly, campaigned on. This is what he ran on and all of this knew this all along. So that's why I think you see so many Republicans including conservatives trying to help the president to fulfill his agenda, but at the same time try to rein in the excessive bureaucracy and the influence, the heavy-handed influence in the states.

And this is a reasonable balance that the president proposed originally. We have seen the balance eroded somewhat and tilting somewhat to the left. But he proposed more flexibility, more dollars getting out of Washington and back to the states, and parental choice, vouchers, if you will, as many call them, in exchange for rigid testing standards, which makes a lot of conservatives nervous, of course, and having the Federal government define terms of quality instead of parents is something that doesn't sit well with a lot of us.

But we are willing to go along with that in change for the free- market approaches to education and in exchange for the flexibility and streamlined dollars. But flexibility is now out of the bill. We may get some of it back in this evening. As matter of fact the vouchers are gone and we are working hard to try to find a way to salvage the president's bill and save it from not only the Democrats but also the handful of liberal Republicans that have joined with them and ripped the heart out of the core of this bill.

NOVAK: Congressman Chaka Fattah thank you for coming back. Good to see you again. Even at a distance.

REP. CHAKA FATTAH (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Good to be back, Bob.

NOVAK: Congressman, I would like you to hear an evaluation of this bill from one of your Republican colleagues, John Shadegg of Arizona.



REP. JOHN SHADEGG (R), ARIZONA: I think the White House has made a call that this needs to be a bipartisan bill. But if the price of making it a bipartisan bill is that it no longer has any Republican priorities in it, and has all Democratic priorities in it, then I think the president may have to rethink his strategy.


NOVAK: Now, that is something I agree with, and Congressman, shouldn't you Democrats be dancing a victory dance tonight up there on Capitol Hill? You have won this fight, haven't you, after -- and it's the first big win you have had this year.

FATTAH: Well, not exactly, but I do think it's important to set the facts straight. Bill Bennett said well, this is what Bush did in Texas. Bush did not push through a voucher program in Texas. When Secretary Page came up for his confirmation hearing, you might recall, Bob, because I know you pay attention, he did not seem all that enthusiastic about vouchers then and it was the Republican votes on the committee last night that helped pass the amendment that helped defeat the voucher proposal.

And in the Senate the voucher proposal was not never even in the Republican leadership bill that Senator Jeffords and Senator Kennedy have opened the debate on, on the Senate floor. So I don't think we should be surprised that vouchers are not going to be a part of this. Vouchers do not enjoy a majority support in this country.

NOVAK: Well, I asked you whether you were happy about the bill and you didn't answer my question.

FATTAH: I am happy about bill, but I'm optimistic that before it's over with we can have a bill that, not that Republicans and Democrats can like, but that can actually improve the education of children in this country. NOVAK: Well, you want even more, I guess, but now let me just ask you, you talk about what you call vouchers, people who don't like private school choice call it vouchers, and that includes most of the media, but what it is, is private school choice.

You know in the inner city, Congressman, the biggest support for private school choice comes from African-Americans in the inner city, 70 percent support because they are desperate to get out of the rotten public schools and get a little money so they can go to parochial or private schools, but what's your problem? Are you so deeply in hock to the school teachers unions that you can't let your own constituents get a decent education?

FATTAH: Well, I know as you know, that public education really has helped us build the greatest country that society has ever seen on face of the earth in terms of our economy and in terms of the contribution that people make. We need a strong public education system available for every child, and the reality is that in the inner city, you talking about this 70 percent support, when you actually ask people whether you want them to take money from public schools and have it go to private schools, they are against that in a majority.

So, we just seem to be trying to play tricks with the words, but the reality is, is that the reason why vouchers are not in the House bill, in a House that is Republican majority and not in the Senate bill, which is a Senate that's Republican majority, is because the American people, in a majority don't support the use of public money for private choices.

PRESS: Congressman, I want get to bottom line about this bill. I didn't quite get to before, just to follow up quickly and then go on to testing. Do you feel, as a conservative, betrayed by George Bush in this education package?

SCHAFFER: No. Not betrayed by George Bush at all. Betrayed by a handful of liberal Republicans who joined with Mr. Fattah and his colleagues over on the Democrats side. They're the ones who betrayed the President, not other way around.

PRESS: All right, now let's get to this testing idea. You know, up in Scarsdale, New York today 195 out of 290 8th graders boycotted a state science exam, with the permission of their parents, to protest the fact that for the last few months the teachers have done nothing but prepare them to take that exam and haven't been teaching them the course. Isn't that the risk with the president's proposal for all this national testing that teachers are going to teach to the test and not, you know, educate the kids?

SCHAFFER: Well, you're not going to get to be a big advocate for national testing of any sort, but the fact remains, states are leading the way in statewide standardized testing, as you're seeing in New York and other states. What the president has proposed is to utilize these tests that many states are already in place and to use those as the measure of progress or failure with respect to schools.

But here again, I think the real question is not so much whether testing exists, it's whether studies have the option to choose a school where their academic goals are being met. If it's not at the school that's making them sit down in chairs and take tests and follow bureaucratic rules and regulations, there ought to be a school where they can choose to attend that approximates their academic needs.

PRESS: But you lost that battle.

SCHAFFER: For now, for now.

NOVAK: Congressman Fattah, when I want to know what the Democratic party is doing on anything, of course, I would like to go to you, but I can't always, but the person I always go to is the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle. He is the voice of the Democratic party, and very often puts it straight, unintentionally straight, and let's listen to him.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: The real question is whether or not we have the money for school construction, whether we have the money to reduce class size, or whether we have the money for the kinds of things that we want to do to help disadvantaged children.


NOVAK: Isn't that the Democratic agenda? Throw more money after it? If the money we have spent on education has resulted in a school system that is a disgrace to this country, put more money in because the labor unions are for us. Isn't that what you're saying?

FATTAH: Well, the Senate, the Republican Senate, just a few hours ago, just voted to increase by billions this education plan. And it was voted on in a very bipartisan, way with the agreement of Republicans and Democrats, because we realize that investing in our children -- spending money on smart children is just as important as spending money, as you want us to do, and Republicans all over say we have to spend money on smart bombs. Smart children, fixing up schools, having quality teachers, we do need to invest dollars.

And the other thing that I think me and you might even be able to agree on, Bob, is that it's not just that the federal government should do better by poor children. Our state governments, that have the primary responsibility, they ought to be required to do better. Why is it that no state in our country can find a way to educate poor children, and that you have to have the federal government even involved in this question?

NOVAK: But don't you have some suspicion, Congressman, that when you have put so much money at the federal, at the local, at the state level into these schools and they get worse and worse, that maybe more money is not the answer? Don't you ever have just, late at night, a suspicion that's not the way to go?

FATTAH: No, what I know is that money does, in fact, matter, and the Rand Corporation and others that have studied this show marked improvement in a number of schools around our country, in which young people are learning more and doing better. We have the best public education system that a country as diverse as ours has anywhere in the world. We can improve it and that's the work that we're involved in.

SCHAFFER: The reality is, states are doing a great job, in some states, educating children of all income categories. Colorado does, my home state. I was in the state legislature. If I was concerned about the amount of money Colorado was spending, I suppose I could do like you, and we could both run for the state legislature again instead of Congress.

The fact is, we're at the wrong level of government to be making decisions on classrooms about how our children should be educated. I think the federal government should play a supportive role, and the president certainly agrees.

And I might also add that under Republican leadership in the Congress, much to my chagrin and some yours, we have pumped more money into this federal bureaucracy, and this monstrous Department of Education, than even you guys did when you had the majority. So the notion that Democrats somehow have cornered the monopoly on spending on education is just not true. Both sides spend, no matter who's in charge.

Well, you do know, that, Bill, that if roll the tape back six months, you have Republicans saying that it was Clinton that was forcing them to invest more money in education. Now they want to take credit for it.

PRESS: All right. See, everybody's big spenders around here. That's what it all amounts to.

NOVAK: Not me.

PRESS: All right. We're going to take a break. When we come back, you know. when Bob Novak and I were in school they used to say "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Is that still the case? More CROSSFIRE coming up.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. On education, one of President Bush's goals is to protect teachers and principals from frivolous lawsuits. But a lot of those so-called "frivolous lawsuits," many parents say, are aimed at stopping teachers and principals from spanking students, a practice banned in 27 states, but not in 23 states known as the "Belt Belt."

So should spanking be protected or banned? Our debate on education continues tonight with Congressman Bob Schaffer, Republican from Colorado, and Congressman Chaka Fattah, Democrat from Pennsylvania -- Robert.

NOVAK: Congressman Fattah, last October 17th, then-Governor Bush, in the presidential debate in St. Louis, explained really much better than Bill did, what we're talking about. I'd like you to listen to it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I strongly believe that one of the best things to encourage parental involvement also is to know that the classrooms will be safe and secure. That's why I support a teacher liability act at the federal level, that says if a teacher or principal upholds reasonable standards of classroom discipline, they can't be sued. They can't be sued.


NOVAK: Why don't you want to give teachers that protection from disruptive lawsuits? There are now, I believe, 30 percent of the principals -- schools in country -- that are being sued by parents who are just causing -- trying to cause trouble and make a buck. Why don't you want to give them that protection?

FATTAH: Well, I heard President Bush say all throughout that he trusts the people. And you know, anyone can go to a court of law and file a suit, but you have a jury and they make a decision. Now, if someone has harmed someone's child, maybe they've done it because it was appropriate that that child be disciplined, or maybe they went a little bit above and beyond.

You know that sometimes people want to discipline, and other times, people want to abuse. And I think that question is better handled in a courtroom in a local community where the people of that community can judge what their standards are. I think at the federal level, we need to be concerned about making sure that every child gets an equal educational opportunity. And let's leave the corporal punishment to local community leaders to make a decision about.

NOVAK: Well, I can't believe you're saying it's just OK for 31 percent of the high school principals in this country to have to fight lawsuits, no matter how the jury comes out. But you know, Congressman, when I was in grade school, at Taft School in Joliet, Illinois -- and that was about 100 years ago. No, it wasn't 100 years ago, but close to it.


NOVAK: The principal had a great big paddle, and anybody who acted up really got that paddle. And I tell you, it was a great deterrent. Nobody ever got hurt, but, boy, you got scared as hell. What was wrong with that?

FATTAH: Well, look, I think somebody should worry about whether or not we're going to use corporal punishment here in the Congress to get us to focus and be disciplined in our work. We have a responsibility to make sure our children get a quality education. That's what we should be concerned about.

PRESS: Clearly, Bob didn't get enough spankings back there in Taft Elementary School. But Congressman, I want to ask you, I'm interested in what a conservative feels about this. These parents who are suing, they're suing because their kids are coming home black and blue. I mean, you support the family, I'm sure. Don't you think it's a role of parents to discipline their kids, not a teacher -- corporal punishment, I'm talking about -- not a teacher and not a principal?

SCHAFFER: I think for most people and for most courts, a confident jurisdiction there is pretty clear line between legitimate corporal punishment and what constitutes child abuse. And sure, that ought to be explored. Parents ought to sue if children are legitimately beaten by people in schools.

But, once again, I hate to sound like I'm on a one-track mind here, but the fact of the matter is, we shouldn't be looking to politicians or courts or anyone as to how our public officials to answer or resolve these questions about how our children are treated by government employees in schools.

If the school doesn't provide the service, whether it's discipline or academic, or anything else, parents ought to be able to take their child out of that school and put them in the place of their choosing. And right now, they are really denied that option too many times, and they are stuck with government agents who are charged with imposing and dispensing punishment and discipline -- discipline is a legitimate problem in schools, however, and I am one who believe that teachers and principals deserve some legal protection.

PRESS: All right. Now, first of all, I just want to point out, it's a Republican president who's sponsoring this federal liability, not any Democrat. But you keep floating this voucher thing. Look, this -- you have to admit -- this is the phoniest idea of all: $1500 dollars is what is in the Bush plan.

Will you name me one private school, one religion school, one private school, where you get a year's tuition for $1500? It's a lie!

SCHAFFER: Yes. It was the Catholic school I went to in...

PRESS: Not today. Not today.

SCHAFFER: Well, when I went to school, tuition was a lot smaller, and I received a small scholarship: $400 to go to that school. And that didn't cover all my tuition, but it allowed me to work through the summers and in the evenings to pay for my own tuitions through college, or high school. So, a small amount of money matters a lot.

And secondly, just what you described, it is really not a voucher; we are talking about the portability of Title One funds. I know that sounds technical, but those are dollars specifically targeted for underserved children and it's those individuals who are trapped in the worst schools and the failing schools. They deserve the most choice and the ability to escape.

NOVAK: Congressman Fattah, you shock me when you said the American school system is the best in the world, which is just plain wrong. And I want to, as my witness, quote Rod Paige, the secretary of education, who said this, on April 10: "After decades of business-as-usual school reform, too many of the nation's children still cannot read. After spending $125 billion over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it."

You cannot contradict Rod Paige, can you, Congressman?

FATTAH: No, but what I did say, Bob, was that, given our diversity of our population, we have the best public school system. Most of the countries that do better than us are societies in which you don't have the level of diversity that we have. We have, in the Philadelphia School District -- in the Philadelphia School District, we have 71 languages...

NOVAK: We are out of time. That will have to be the last word. Thank you very much, Congressman Fattah. Thank you very much, Congressman Schaffer.

And I'm going to take Bill Press to school in closing comments.

PRESS: No spanking.


PRESS: Bob, you know what? We didn't get to this -- you know what's wrong with this bill? Bush brags about being the education president; there's less than $2 billion in spending in this bill, and 69 billion next year for a tax cut for people like you. That's what's wrong with this bill.

SCHNEIDER: You want to put more money down a rat hole in a dysfunctional education system. But you know something? I read something you never read and that's the U.S. Constitution. I can find nothing in the Constitution that has a federal responsibility for education.

You know as well as I do that this is the business of the states and the local communities. And they used be able to do it without spending all this money. It's the labor unions that have caused it...

PRESS: Bob, if the federal government can require testing, the federal government can give money to hire new teachers, for example.

NOVAK: I don't like testing.

PRESS: You don't like testing. Do you like teachers?

NOVAK: I love teachers.

PRESS: Pay for them.

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

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak, join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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