It's a "national emergency" in our schools, Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared. No, not kids shooting kids. And no, not the discouraging popularity of all-boy pop bands. No, Bush bemoaned that "too many of our children cannot read," and promptly committed to a five-year, $5 billion program to ensure that poor children in kindergarten and first grade receive adequate instruction in reading.
Beyond the policy and cash chasm that separates the two candidates, the debate -- and Bush's speech -- was just the latest chapter in the candidates' feud and political pageant over the education issue, a debate Bush seems to be winning.
According to a Pew Research Center poll released last week, 44 percent of the American people think that Bush would "do the best job on education," as opposed to 41 percent who pick Gore -- a significant development not only because Democrats traditionally score better on the issue than Republicans, but because the issue rates foremost among women and suburban voters who will wield much of the decision-making power this November.
Bush has received some positive reviews for recent educational achievements in Texas. Working with the Legislature, Bush reduced the number of state education rules, cut the number of state education goals from 48 to four ("excellence in English, math, science and history"), launched an $82 million early reading initiative, worked to end social promotion and established goals for each school to meet, measured through annual testing.
During Tuesday's speech, just the latest hop on Bush's path back to the political middle, he continued to embrace education as his issue, refusing to cede it to anyone. Last Friday, Bush appeared at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., to continue to discuss education reform and the proposals he's made in the past -- like support for charter schools, or giving parents the option of taking a voucher instead of continuing to send their children to failing schools.
The goal of the plan Bush unveiled Tuesday, called "Reading First," is literacy for "every child" by the end of third grade -- though the program only funds reading programs for poor children whose schools are partly funded with federal Title I funds. The program would spend $5 million annually to determine which children need the extra help. Another $90 million would be spent on training teachers in whatever "research-based" instruction methods each state and locality deems appropriate -- whether after-school programs, "school within school" programs or tutoring. The bulk of the cash, $900 million a year, would be devoted to the programming itself.
"There's a tension at the heart of our prosperity," Bush said. "All our wealth has not purchased educational achievement. Our economy is the envy of the world. But unfortunately, our schools are not."
But Gore spokesman Chris Lehane was eager to slam Bush for not acknowledging the fact that achievement in education will indeed take some purchasing. "We need smaller classrooms, more teachers, modernized classrooms and an emphasis on pre-kindergarten education," Lehane said. But Bush's proposed tax cut -- estimated between $1.3 trillion and $2 trillion over a decade -- "leaves no money for domestic programs," Lehane said, repeating Gore's mantra that the Bush plan is "a risky tax scheme."
Bush's speech was as jam-packed as an inner-city classroom with lofty rhetoric about how "not a single child shall be left behind," with little cash on the table. "We need to challenge failure," Bush insisted. "More and more we are divided into two nations: one that reads and one that can't, and, therefore, one that dreams and one that doesn't."
But for Bush, the emphasis isn't money, but accountability -- an area where he says Gore falls short. "You can't have a kernel of success without strong accountability systems," Bush said. "We need to know" how schools are performing. Gore's proposal is "resources without reform," Bush said, "with no history of results, and really no prospect of success." Under Gore and President Clinton, "the consequences for failure never come ... If you don't know where you're headed, it doesn't make much sense to pick up the pace."
Bush has a point, according to Amy Wilkins, principal partner of the Education Trust -- a Washington, D.C., non-partisan, non-profit organization that focuses on closing the achievement gap that exists between rich and poor students, and white and minority students.
"To put more money into the current education system is like putting gas into a car that needs to go to the shop," Wilkins says of the Gore approach.
But, she cautions, the way to improve the education system is through both Bush's emphasis on accountability as well as "Gore's strength, which really is about investment. Money does matter. You can't get a higher level of achievement without committing the federal resources necessary, and to say you can is a little bit hollow."
So they're both right, and they're both wrong.
Before her boss's speech, held in a conference room at Sallie Mae college loan corporation, Bush's primary education advisor, Margaret D. La Montagne, acknowledged that many of the figures behind the $5 billion were sheer guesswork, but blamed the guestimate on the lack of accountability within the present system.
How many kids would need "Reading First"? Well, um -- La Montagne did the math for us: There are 8.2 million kids in K-1, and 20 percent of them are in poverty, so that's 1.64 million kids. And then, applying a figure from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) that showed 58 percent of the poorest fourth-graders unable to read at the basic level, 58 percent of 1.64 million is, like, 950,000, and when you figure that it's about $38 to educate a kid per day, and this program would be "summer school-like" and take maybe 30 days ($1,140 per kid) -- voil`! "Just over a billion."
When asked if Bush's commitment to "Reading First" would continue even if the numbers of kids needing help were higher, La Montagne said, "Certainly."
But the centerpiece of Bush's education message is not so much what he plans to do, but what he has done.
La Montagne and Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes repeatedly lauded their boss's record; fact sheets distributed to reporters bragged that under "Bush, the number of students passing all parts of the state skills test (TAAS) has increased by 40 percent, and the number of minorities passing all parts of the TAAS has increased by 81 percent."
A Republican National Committee fax sent out Tuesday quoted a Time magazine story as reporting that "public schools in Texas have improved dramatically on Bush's watch ... Black and Latino children have made galloping gains in math and reading scores during his years in office, narrowing the achievement gap that bedevils schools systems around the country."
But not surprisingly, there was a lot in the Time story the RNC left out.
"If Gore throws money at the problem without demanding accountability," Time's Eric Pooley wrote, "Bush demands accountability without throwing enough money ... Bush offers no money for teacher training, school construction, class-size reduction or preschool. And his plan is silent on boosting teacher quality -- a baffling lapse, since it is the most important factor in a child's education. Bush also would do nothing to help supply the 2.2 million new teachers needed in the next 10 years."
Wilkins says she and the other members of the Education Trust appreciate Bush's work "based on what he's done in Texas." However, she says, "this is not to say that we agree with him down the line" -- especially on his plans for the future. Bush's pro-voucher proposals are "nonsense," she says, as is the centerpiece of Bush's education plan: a $5.5 billion education tax credit -- which would increase the allowable annual contribution to education savings accounts from $500 per student to $5,000, and allow parents to withdraw funds tax-free to pay for expenses for kindergarten through college -- that she deems "craziness."
But, when it comes down to it, Wilkins says, Bush has been a strong proponent of accountability, where Clinton and Gore have been weak. "The Clinton administration should wish it had a record on education as good as what Bush has to show in Texas."
But Gore wants to poke holes in this record. Standing outside Sallie Mae, a Gore for President employee handed reporters a Baltimore Sun story that questioned Bush's past, rather than the proposals for the future. While Texas students are scoring higher on the TAAS than ever before, the Sun story stated, they are not doing so on the SAT and other national tests. And while Bush heralds minority students' performance under his watch, Texas' rankings on the NAEP -- the respected nationwide exam La Montagne used to calculate the $5 billion figure -- indicated that the gap between minority and white students on some subjects actually grew.
"The Texas results are mixed," acknowledges Wilkins, taking a bunch of papers out of her bag. On the NAEP from 1992-1996, she relays, Texas fourth-graders fared extremely well in mathematics -- overall outscoring fourth-graders from all other states as well as scoring the highest in the country when divided and compared among white students as well as black students, and the second highest scores in the country for Latino students.
But Texas fourth-graders didn't do so well when it came to reading, the issue Bush addressed in his Tuesday speech. From 1992-1998, Wilkins says, "the gap did widen between black students and white students, as well as between whites and Hispanics."
Bush, of course, was first elected governor of Texas in 1994, which is also the first year that the TAAS tests were used. So it may not be quite fair to blame him for the state's growing gap between white and minority students when it comes to reading. But then again, he's the one who raised the subject and bragged about the TAAS scores, which also make him look pretty good.
All of this shows that education is rarely as clear-cut an issue as other wedge issues -- like gun control or abortion, for instance. Wilkins says both Gore and Bush have their strengths and weakness on the subject -- and that the best education program would combine funding and accountability, Gore's open wallet with Bush's belt of accountability.
But even accountability can be a tricky thing. One study -- released at Harvard University in January, and written by education Professor Linda McNeil of Rice University in Houston and Angela Valenzuela of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin -- questions what TAAS has meant in terms of actual education results. McNeil and Valenzuela's study describes a system where "test-prep activities are usurping a substantive curriculum":
"The pressure to raise TAAS scores leads teachers to spend class time, often several hours each week," the two write, "drilling students on practice-exam materials. Much of this time is spent learning how to bubble-in answers, how to weed out obviously wrong answers, and how to become accustomed to multiple-choice, computer-scored formats. This TAAS drill takes time from real teaching and learning. In the name of "alignment" between course curricula and test, TAAS drills are becoming the curriculum in our poorest schools."
They conclude that Texas's "overreliance on test scores has caused a decline in educational quality for those students who have the greatest educational need."
When asked, Bush advisor La Montagne said she was unfamiliar with the study. But on the general subject of teaching for the test, rather than having the test measure what's being learned, La Montagne said, "Our response to that is: If you've got a criteria-referenced test, which our state-developed test is, and the test measures what you want kids to know, you know, having the kids prepare for the test is not a bad thing. If fractions are going to be tested, and you're teaching them fractions, great."
However glib La Montagne's response might sound, there are many people who work in education who have no problem with it.
"Shoot," says Wilkins. "If they're teaching to the test, at least they're teaching something. In a lot of schools there's more coloring going on than writing; more decorating than mathematics. If they're learning how to take the test, at least they're gaining some skills."