Who's the Education President?

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Special education students play chess in their revamped school library

The party balance in congress is on the line, there is dissent among the White House staff... and what does the President spend the week obsessing about? The school-board election in his hometown.

President Bartlet's manic attention to local school politics on a recent episode of NBC-TV's hit show "The West Wing" seems especially appropriate in the final days of this real-life American campaign. Anyone hearing George W. Bush and Al Gore might think that the big vote we're casting next week is really for superintendent in chief.

Listen as Bush invokes his "crusade" to improve schools and Gore calls for an education "revolution," and it's hard to believe that just 45 years ago the Federal Government didn't spend a dime on K-12 education. Even now, Washington provides only about 7 percent of public school spending. Yet this year Bush and Gore — while rooted in different philosophies — have come up with thoughtful, detailed plans to tackle our most pressing educational challenges: schools that repeatedly fail, the opportunity for more early-childhood learning, the shortage of qualified teachers, the high cost of college tuition. And voters in 18 states will decide on ballot initiatives that concern such issues as vouchers and bilingual teaching. Gore is right when he says, "Education is on the ballot this November."

So who's got the better program? For much of the campaign, Bush had neutralized the traditional Democratic advantage on education, boasting of a Texas record that enabled him to say that he, not Gore, knows what works. Last week a Rand Corp. study called parts of Bush's record into question, noting that many of Texas' touted gains may have been the result of widespread test cramming, not actual learning. But Bush stands by his record (a Rand study earlier this year showed that by several measures Texas leads the nation) and pledges to enact the Texas testing and accountability program on a national scale. Bush also proposes a $26.6 billion increase in education spending over 10 years — a dramatic departure for a Republican.

Gore would impose less testing than Bush does, and promises far more in new spending: $115 billion. This fundamental difference — do you stress accountability or investment? — is nowhere clearer than in how the candidates propose to handle what is arguably the nation's biggest problem: the more than 7,000 schools that year after year have failed to educate students.

A President Bush would tell failing schools that enough is enough: If you can't do the job, we'll give your federal dollars to parents to help them send their kids to a better school. A President Gore would keep trying: bring in a team of specialists, pump money into reform, and if all else fails, shut the place down and start over with a new principal and new teachers.

To see the Bush plan in action, consider the story of Spencer Bibbs Elementary in Pensacola, Fla. Meant to be a magnet school for science and technology, Spencer Bibbs instead posted abysmal test scores that landed it on the state's worst-performing list two years in a row. During the 1998–99 school year, just 26 percent of its students scored at the minimum-competency level of the state's reading exam.

Last year Spencer Bibbs and neighboring A. A. Dixon Elementary became national guinea pigs as the first schools to lose kids to state-sponsored vouchers, thanks to Governor Jeb Bush's "A+ Schools" program, the model for his brother's national voucher plan. (As governor of Texas, George W. Bush tried but failed to get the legislature to pass a similar program.) Students at both Pensacola schools were offered as much as $4,000 in state aid to pay for private-school tuition. Under Bush's national proposal, failing schools that do not improve for three years would lose their federal Title I money, which is then divided up and given, along with state matching dollars, to parents as $1,500 vouchers.

In Florida, voucher proponents had argued that parents would jump at the chance to get their "trapped" kids out of public schools. Yet of the 870 students offered vouchers, only 60 took them; eight have since moved back to the public schools. Area superintendent Jim May explains that parents already had the option of switching their kids into other public schools, which, unlike the private schools, pay for transportation and lunch. The 52 kids still using the vouchers are mostly happy, say their parents, but that's the only evidence of improvement because the state has refused to release the voucher kids' test results.

Voucher critics warned that the loss of $2 million in state aid could devastate the district schools. While Spencer Bibbs did have to drop three reading specialists, the voucher threat inspired the district to make improvements, including extending the school year to 210 days. Today neither Spencer Bibbs nor A. A. Dixon is on the state's failing list.

The biggest surprise to both sides in the voucher debate came this summer when the state announced the results of last year's exams. Seventy-six schools had been graded F by the state the year before; if these schools did not improve, nearly 60,000 kids would have been offered vouchers. Yet somehow every one of those schools received a D or higher, so the 52 kids from Pensacola remain the only ones in Florida using vouchers.

The Gore treatment is equally controversial. He wants to send educational "SWAT teams" armed with extra cash into failing schools. If after two years that hasn't turned the schools around, states would have the power to shut the schools down and reopen them with new teachers and administrators.

The easy half of the Gore plan — the teams of experienced educators with extra money — is inspired by North Carolina, which has brought great improvement to some low-performing schools. But once the teams leave, some schools have fallen back onto the failing list. And the costs of the program, if fully funded, are huge: North Carolina's $6.6 million a year in turnaround money pays for only 14 teams to assist the state's 44 low-performing schools. Gore's national turnaround budget is $500 million a year, and he moves failing schools to the front of the line for funds for after-school programs and to cut class size, but even that may not be enough.

The second half of Gore's plan, reconstitution, has been called the neutron bomb of school reform, and most states, including North Carolina, have been too skittish to try it. The only real success stories have come in New York City, which has "redesigned" about 65 schools in the past five years. One example: three years ago, the Bronx's P.S. 3 ranked 672nd among New York City schools — fourth from the bottom. The city fired the principal, replaced two thirds of the teachers, extended the school day and switched from a touchy-feely "real life" curriculum to one emphasizing basic instruction in reading and math. In one year, math scores on the state exam jumped 15 percent and reading scores 8.5 percent.

But such radical change is difficult to pull off. Unions fight layoffs. And it isn't easy to find good replacements. Maryland almost lost its battle to take over three Baltimore schools last year (out of 81 deemed to be failing) because of community uproar and a teachers' union lawsuit. In 1997 Denver restaffed two elementary schools, but test scores have barely changed.

These mixed results, however, are unlikely to quell the public demand for reform. No matter who wins, our new superintendent in chief will use that 7 percent of education dollars for as much leverage as he can get.

— With reporting by Paul Cuadros/Pensacola and Desa Philadelphia/New York