Surprise: Bush could be the "education president"

A longtime school reformer says the Republican front-runner might be the best hope for low-income and minority students at a time when you can't talk about "poor kids" -- to Democrats.

Published September 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The 1970s cliché that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged might have a '90s update: A conservative is a liberal who has tried to reform public schools, especially for poor kids, and failed.

Almost 35 years since Congress began massively funding education support for disadvantaged students, through the $8 billion Chapter 1/Title 1 program, the effort is widely judged a disappointment. In most states, poor kids continue to lag far behind their advantaged peers in school achievement, while blacks and Latinos still lag behind whites, and those achievement gaps -- which started to close for a while -- began widening again in the mid-1990s.

So more than a few reformers have begun to flirt with heretofore taboo ideas -- charters, school privatization, merit pay for teachers, even vouchers. And some are even flirting with supporting a Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Bush's Sept. 2 education policy speech in Los Angeles, in which he committed himself to closing the achievement gap for poor and minority kids and cracking down on the failures of Title 1, was a hit with many education reformers, and some of them will even say it publicly.

Bush won points for both style and substance. "The fact that it was about poor kids and minority kids was right on the money, because that's where the feds are supposed to count," says Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, a respected Washington advocacy group for low-income education reform. "And he's clearly learned that accountability matters."

But the centerpiece of Bush's accountability plan frightened some advocates: Schools receiving Title 1 funds that, after three years, don't show improvement in low-income kids' achievement will see their federal funding yanked, and given to parents -- to the tune of $1,500 a year per student.

Is Bush a dedicated education reformer, finally enforcing standards for poor kids? Or is he a right-wing ideologue trying to slouch toward vouchers -- a word, the New York Times noted, he never used during his speech?

Salon News asked Haycock, who has closely watched Bush's reform efforts in Texas, to talk about the implications of the Republican front-runner's proposals. Although Haycock worked closely on education reform issues with the White House, she's won no friends there by praising Bush's education plans to NBC News and other media outlets.

Judging from his Texas policies, Haycock says, Bush means business. He's used both carrots and sticks to force schools to devise strategies to improve the achievement of poor, black and Latino kids -- and achievement gaps have narrowed significantly in his state. So Haycock thinks Bush deserves a serious look from education advocates -- although she notes that Clinton, too, was a committed education reformer when governor of Arkansas, while as president he has disappointed his former allies.

The big news of Bush's proposal was his notion that if a given school can't make things better for poor kids, we're going to give the money to their parents. How did you respond to hearing that?

When I read the speech, I said, Wow! The fact that it was about poor kids and minority kids was right on the money, because that's where the feds are supposed to count. He made it clear that he thinks these kids can learn, no excuses, and that he understood the ramifications of continued low achievement. That was just great. I also think that he's clearly learned a good part of the Texas lesson -- even though a lot of that good work was started on [former Texas Gov.] Ann Richards' watch -- that making schools accountable for poor kids really matters.

In other words, if we just say you're accountable and you've got to get better, but there are no consequences -- which is how it's been for a very long time -- I don't think we get their attention the way we do when there are consequences. Now the question is whether the consequence that he's proposing will have the effect that he seems to think it will. I'm not sure.

You mean: Will taking away those schools' funding, and giving it to parents, really help poor kids?

A part of me says, Wait a second, you're talking about accountability, yet what you'd be doing [by giving the money to parents] is in many cases sending dollars to schools where there is no accountability whatsoever, where the kids don't have to take the state exams, where there is no public reporting of data, and where parents may be getting the shaft again -- even though you won't know they are. I mean, if accountability is critically important, then you have to extend it over there.

My point of view is, if a school doesn't get better, there's got to be big-time consequences -- and that can end with pulling the dollars out of the school and sending them someplace else. My own preference is that they ought to go to enable the poor kid to attend a high-performing public school. Because that's the only place where $1,500 is going to get you anything. But there are some communities where there aren't high-performing public schools for poor kids. So, in those circumstances, if the school is willing to submit to the state exams and show how different kinds of kids are doing on the exams, then fine. Better to do that than to lock kids into crummy public schools.

Do you worry that this is his stalking horse for vouchers? He didn't use the word, but ...

It could be. It would be naive to suggest that the right has not figured out that this is the easiest way to sell public money going into private schools. Because it makes sense not just to people who were always in favor of vouchers, but to people like me, who know damn well how poor quality most high-poverty schools are. If you say to me: Should we hold poor kids hostage in low-performance public schools? I've got to say: No, we shouldn't. So it is the one place where you can appeal to people who otherwise have their doubts about this. Who knows? I don't know what's in this guy's heart. And that side of it does worry me somewhat.

When I think about a future, 10 or 20 years from now, where Catholic kids are educated separated from Muslim kids and white kids from black kids, even more so than it already is today, I find that frightening. But then the other side of me says: What's scarier, that, or continuing to consign generations more of black kids and brown kids and poor kids to low quality education, and dooming them to lives on the margins? How do you measure the trade-off there? Polls say more and more black folks in particular are saying, These reformers are taking decades to change public education, so thank you, I'll take the vouchers.

And of course in lots of low-income schools we have de facto segregation already, where 100 percent black or minority kids are stuck in a terrible school.

Right. So I guess in the end the question for people like me is, Where does this guy really want to go with it? Is this but one piece, this voucher thing, one piece of a strategy that's really about getting serious about the education of poor kids and really about making sure they are in high-quality schools? Then I'm game to go along, although I'm careful.

Or is it the first step toward a larger, ideological assault on public education?

Well, we don't know, but I have to point out: Bush sure talked about poor kids more in that single speech than a lot of Democrats have so far in the whole campaign.

Here's what I don't understand: We all know the problems with Title 1 funding and the lack of accountability. But in 1994, the Clinton administration presided over an overhaul of Title 1 that was all about accountability. If you read what it was designed to do, it sounds like it was written by the Education Trust.

It was. It was written by the Commission on Chapter 1, which is housed here.

So what happened? Why haven't they gone forward with making sure that those reforms are actually taking place state by state and school by school -- making sure that poor and minority kids actually get help in school?

What the White House will tell you is that what happened was the '94 elections. With the change in the composition of Congress and the shift in the majority, the ability to be tough on states evaporated, and all of the consensus went away. So they couldn't really accomplish what had been the original design. I just don't accept that as an honest answer. From the get-go they fought very hard against us on the issue of [analyzing] data by race and poverty ...

Looking specifically at how poor kids, or minority kids, do compared with better-off kids?

They fought fiercely against that. They fought fiercely against the suggestion that schools had to make progress for poor kids. That, after all, was supposed to be the trade-off in the '94 law. The idea was the feds would back off from telling schools how they spent the money, but in return parents would be given the information to know whether those schools had made progress with their kids -- with poor kids. Well, all of the regulations the department issued let schools demonstrate progress either by showing that their poor kids' scores went up -- or, if they prefer, by showing that the school average went up. Which means that rich kids's scores can go up, and the school can improve overall, while poor kids' scores are actually going down. So they broke the bargain as far as I'm concerned.

It got to be so nobody would even say the words "poor kids" on the Hill. We'd come in and talk about poor kids and they'd say, "You can't talk about poor kids --"

But now Republicans can talk about poor kids?

It's wild. So all I'm saying is, Right now George Bush's message on education gives me more hope that something might happen for poor kids than what I'm hearing elsewhere. And in Texas they're doing the right things for poor and minority kids.

Isn't there some worry, though, that while test-score gaps are closing, there's too much "teaching to the test," just drilling kids on what they're going to be taught, and it's not measuring learning?

Yeah, but they're designing a new test that's going to be much better, much more rigorous. So they're really doing the right things. One of my staff members, a longtime Democrat, went out to Texas and did advance work on the release of their new education standards, and Bush was there. She came back and said, "This is the first time I've ever done advance work for an event like this with a Republican, but you know what? He's really genuine." So who knows? I don't know what to make of this. The White House isn't happy with us right now, but that's OK. Our job is to call people out on these issues. And people are talking about it.

By Joan Walsh

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Bill Clinton Education George W. Bush Republican Party