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President Bush Speak About Education Reform

Aired August 1, 2001 - 10:19   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now to Washington D.C., to the Washington Convention Center. You see there President Bush is just now walking on to the stage. There you see is a collection of board members and dignitaries from the National Urban League, which is gathered here in Washington for its annual convention.

There is the president and CEO of the National Urban League, on the left, Hugh Price. He just introduced President Bush, and he also expressed he and Mr. Bush have a common interest in improving education across the country.



Well, Hugh, thank you very much. I'm honored to be introduced by such a good man and an important leader for our country.

I want to thank the leadership of the National Urban League for inviting me.

For those of you who don't live here, I welcome you to the nation's capital. You've come here to hold America to its founding promises of justice and opportunity. There are many items on that agenda from economic empowerment, election reform to criminal justice reform.

Right before we came in the hall I had the opportunity to visit with this organization's fine leadership. And my pledge to them and my pledge to you is I'll work together with you to do what's right for America.


Here in Washington we are reaching a moment of decision on one issue. An issue that exists in every urban neighborhood, the issue of education. So this morning among the nation's most influential urban leaders, I want to speak about the essential choices facing our Congress and our country when it comes to the reform of our public schools.

Again, I thank my friend, Hugh Price, for the invitation. I thank him for his diligence. I thank him for his leadership.

I want to thank Ken Lewis (ph) as well.

I appreciate so very much Leland Bresland (ph).

I want to thank Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state of Ohio, and Joe Rogers, lieutenant governor of Colorado, who are here.

I appreciate so very much the secretary of education, Rod Paige, serving our nation. You know, when it came to picking the secretary of education, I wasn't interested in picking a theorist or a philosopher. I was interested in picking a doer. And this man had run the...


This man has successfully run the Houston Independent School District. He raised the standards, challenged the status quo in their failure. And that's what he and I are both going to do now that we're in Washington, D.C.

I also appreciate very much, Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general for joining us, as well.

Thank you, Larry. Where are you Larry? Somewhere you're out there.


The men and women of the Urban League know how important our schools are, how much good they can do in the life of a child and how much is lost when they fail. You've seen both.

BUSH: The mission of the National Urban League is to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights. And successful schools have always been central to that mission. An equal society begins with equally excellent schools, but we know our schools today are not equal. The failure of many urban schools is a great and continuing scandal. Rarely in American history have we faced a problem so serious and destructive on which change has come so slowly.

The most basic educational skill is reading. The most basic obligation of any school is to teach reading. Yet earlier this year, we found that almost two-thirds of African-American children in the fourth grade cannot read at basic grade level. For white children, that figure is 27 percent. The gap is wide and troubling, and it's not getting any better. That gap leads to personal tragedy and social injustice. In America, literacy is liberation, and we must set all our children free.


The ability to read is what turns a child into a student. First, we learn to read, and then we read to learn. When this skill is not taught, a child has not failed the system, the system has failed the child. And that child is often put on a path of frustration and broken confidence.

For too long, many schools have been content to blame their failure on parents, on poverty, on circumstances beyond their control. Year after year, children with out schools are passed along in schools without standards. Some see this social promotion as an act of compassion. It is, in fact, a form of discrimination, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

BUSH: That bigotry has young casualties, and that bigotry must end.


Listen to the experience of one young girl from New York. She said, "In the fifth grade I missed maybe 90 days of school, and they passed me with no problem. In the sixth grade, I missed maybe 100 days, and they passed me with no problem. I don't even remember taking the examine," she said, "they just kept passing me along. I ended up dropping out in the seventh grade. I basically felt that no one cared." That young woman learned one lesson in school: No one cared, at least no one who could help. Millions of children carry that same lesson throughout their lives, and we owe them better.

We owe all our children the pride and promise of learning. We must return the spirit of ambition and achievement to all our public schools. The Urban League is reaching toward that goal by highlighting student achievement, by focusing on early literacy, by encouraging every child to read and rise, and our government must have those same priorities. Education is a local responsibility. Yet, improving our public schools is a national goal.


BUSH: And all of us must do our part.

For nearly 40 years, our federal government has tried to improve education with money alone. We invested $158 billion in Title I programs with great intentions and no measurable result. We've been pumping gas into a flooded engine. Just as faith without works is dead, money without reform is fruitless.

Yet, today, after decades of frustration, we're on the verge of dramatic reform. Schools must have the resources they need, and I support more spending.

Local folks must be in charge of local schools because they're closet to the children in their challenges. But most of all, we need true accountability, the centerpiece of reform. Consequences for school officials must be determined by proven results for children.

BUSH: Those in authority must show responsibility. The purpose of education, after all, is not jobs for adults, it's learning for students.

(APPLAUSE) Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real.


I know this because I've seen it. In Texas, when we first introduced accountability measures, only 56 percent of African- American fourth graders could pass our state reading test. Today, 83 percent of those students pass the test.


African-American eighth graders in Texas are writing better than their peers in any other state. Our Texas state tests require and measure progress amongst every minority group. And the great news is we've gotten progress amongst every group in Texas.


We saw, supposedly hopeless schools make major progress. We saw students who had been written off find the self-esteem of real accomplishment. We saw our determined reform can confound the cynics and the skeptics. Accountability can work in all of America, and our federal government must take the side of meaningful reform. Our government must speak for disadvantaged children, who are often overlooked and underestimated.

I'm an activist for high standards. I'm an activist for accountability. My administration has set a great goal: We will lift the load of low expectations so that all children will rise.


The United States Congress now shares this goal. Our plan passed both the House and the Senate with big bipartisan majorities.

BUSH: Our national debate has come a long way, but in the short distance we have left, there are some vital decisions to be made. Our landmark education reform is now in what they call a conference committee. We're coming down to the wire. We've got to finish strong and make sure the accountability measures are right.

So today, I'm urging the Congress to act quickly and to act wisely on three major issues. First, we must begin where the need is greatest and focus on the lowest performing schools. The bar for adequate school performance must be rigorous, achievable, targeted to all groups and raised gradually. No one should ask that all our goals be met overnight. These goals must be met over time. If after three years nothing changes for students in a failing school, their parents must be given other options, like a transfer to a better public school or private tutoring. Now, it's well-known I would have preferred those options to include funds to attend a private school. Many in Congress, unfortunately, disagreed. Yet, we all agree that schools which persistently fail must be radically restructured.


Some of my allies in reform want to require dramatically improved performance immediately everywhere. I appreciate aiming high, but setting impossible expectations means setting no expectations. The undoable never gets done. If we identify all schools are failures, we won't be able to focus on the greatest needs. If goals are unrealistic, teachers will become discouraged instead of challenged, harassed instead of inspired. By confronting the worse problems, we direct our energies and send a message of reform heard throughout the entire system.

Second, states must choose their own tests. But within a state, those tests must be comparable from place to place and year to year. Right now, a state in its districts can use different tests, and that's OK by me. But there has to be a way to compare the results of those tests to one another. The state accountability systems count easy test from some districts and hard tests from others. Without a method to compare them, parents won't really know who's making progress and who's falling behind.

BUSH: Unless there's a fair and consistent measurement amongst schools, there can be no accountability.

Thirdly, we must have independent evidence that state tests are rigorous and state tests are real. Fortunately, we already have a proven way to get the independent evidence we need: the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the NAEP. NAEP's not new. Over 40 states now participate. It's not a national test, and we certainly don't need one. But we do need a national report card, and NAEP serves that purpose. We need an objective check on state accountability systems, so we need the NAEP for every state.

You know, not long ago, accountability was controversial. Today, the concept is widely shared. But to make a difference in the lives of children, it must be more than a concept. Accountability must be tough, yet realistic and workable. The Congress has some work to do before we reach that goal, and the time is running short. We're now in August.

In 35 days, school starts in New York City; in 34 days, schools open in Oakland, California; in Kansas City, Missouri, children report for class in 26 days. Principals and teachers need to make their plans for changes that will come immediately and for changes that will come next year.

We're asking a lot of our schools and our teachers and our students. They have a big job ahead of them and so do we here in Washington. And now is the time, Congress, to get the job done.

Two years ago, when I spoke to the Urban League Conference in Houston, my reforms for America's schools were just a set of proposals. Now these proposals are within weeks of becoming reality. I'm thanking the Urban League for your support and ask you to continue to work with Congress to make sure they become the law of the land. I ask you to join me in building a system of education worthy of all America's children so that every child has a chance in life and not one single child, in the greatest land on the face of this earth, is left behind.


Thank you all for having me and may God bless America.

HARRIS: President Clinton -- President Bush rather -- had a flashback there. President Bush addressing the National Urban League this morning in the convention in Washington. He began his remarks -- we he knew he was going to talk about education, but he came out strong saying an equal society begins with equally excellent schools, and that is the theme of speech this morning. He went on to urge Congress to take action on three measures that he says to ensure -- one -- that lowest performing schools across the country must be improved by raising the standards and making them rigorous. And if after three years, the schools show no improvement, parents with children's in the school, should be able to move their children to another public school.

Secondly, he wants the Congress to make sure that states are able to choose their own test, and not be forced to handling the national test, but ensuring any state test implemented would be comparable from state to state in order to measure accountability. And thirdly, he says there should be independent evidence that the states' tests are real tests.

Let's go in check in now with our John King, who is our senior White House correspondent who is at the White House this morning -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, this the president once again, trying to prod the Congress along. He's trying to negotiate a deal on the patients' bill of rights. His energy proposal is due for votes in the House today.

This bill, the education bill, is one the president hoped to sign a couple of months ago. But it's tied up as the House and the Senate are trying to resolve difference. On the one hand, some conservatives in the president's own Republican Party think this bill spends too much money. They think it has too big of a federal role, that Washington is setting too many rules on the public schools across the country. So the president tries to prod along some Republicans.

On the other hand, some Democrats don't like it. They don't like the idea that if a public school is deemed to be failing -- and you have to set a standard for that in this legislation, that parents would be given the option of taking children out of that school. Now the president lost the fight over so-called school vouchers, but he still thinks if a school fails, as you heard him say three years in a row. Parents should be able to transfer their student to another public school. Some Democrats don't like that. Some Democrats don't like the annual test the president wants.

So he's trying to negotiate a compromise with the Congress here. This is a bill he had hoped to sign back in June or July. The earliest it will get to his desk now is September. And you heard the president at the very end say that he thinks that's unfair, that as administrators and teachers prepare to come back to school in some districts, in less than a month from now, the president thinks they ought to know what the federal government will tell them what they need to do -- Leon.

HARRIS: John, I heard the comments as well that Mr. Bush made upon the time running out before anything will be done before this year is out. Is the White House really hoping that something could be pushed through Congress by the end of this year, or by the end of the summer at least?

KING: This will be done in September. Most people in Congress will tell you it passed the House, it passed the Senate. There are some significant differences, but no differences that either the White House or members of the Democratic or Republican Parties on Capitol Hill don't think can be resolved. But the House took its time in appointing the members of that conference committee, again, in part, because some conservatives don't like some things in this bill.

Just as the Senate was dealing with this legislation is when Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched parties, became an independent; the Democrats took charge of the Senate at that point. So this bill has been caught up not only in debate about the specifics of the education legislation itself. But the back and forth we've had in Washington in the first six months of the Bush presidency. This is one the president hoped to sign a long time ago. But we see him now as Congress has a few days before it goes on recess, before the president goes on vacation, trying to prod them along not only on education, but on patients' bill of rights and energy policy, several other issues as well. This one likely to be on the top of the list, though, when Congress comes back to work in September.

HARRIS: We'll keep an eye how this plodding process goes on.

John King, at the White House, thanks. We'll talk with you later on -- Donna.

DONNA KELLEY, CBS ANCHOR: And now for some perspective on President Bush's speech, we want to go to Washington and CNN's political analyst Ron Brownstein for a little bit more on that.

Ron, let's talk about some of the points that the president made in his speech. Let's talk about money and where you think the troublespot are there that he could run into with Congress?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the money in some ways is the most straightforward dispute he has. It's basically Democrats want more than he wants to spend.

And you know, Donna, money is the kind of thing people in Congress know how to resolve. It's a division problem in the end. They find numbers somewhere in between where the Democrats start and where the president starts.

The more difficult issues are the ones that he highlighted today, that put him in conflict not only with Democrats, but with members of his own party.

KELLEY: When he talks about failing schools and the options for parents, and he talked about in three years, if nothing change, parents should have some other option, and he'd like to, if he says, of course have some private schools, but a lot in Congress disagree with him. So that's a big issue?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, but you know, strangely enough, that is largely resolved. Both chambers, both parties really have sort of reached the consensus. There is not the votes in neither house for the kinds of vouchers that the president wanted. You would have parents in a failing school after three years be proposed to allow to take federal money and send their kids to private school. That's not in there.

What is in both chambers and the final bill is the opportunity for parents to send kids to other public schools, and I think equally significant, to get public money to purchase after-school tutoring, even from private providers. That is a big new benefit that is going to go to parents in failing schools. The big dispute, as John King mentioned, and as the president cited, how do you define what schools are failing, because that's triggers these benefits.

KELLEY: Well, that's right, and how you decide what are the failing school, and then after that, do you give them more money to try to get it up to speed, or do you just take the money and run?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you are going to give them more money. That is something the president agreed to early on and both chambers agreed. There will be money for those years one and two for schools to try to improve their test performance before you get to the consequences of the public school choice and after-school tutoring in year three.

The president today signaled, although he didn't give all the details, that he is moving away from the very complex plan that his administration came up with, to try to identify failing schools, and probably moving closer toward the reformers in both parties, the centrists in both parties on an issue. Indeed, Donna, on all three issues, he cited today, he's probably siding a little more closely with the reformers than he is with the conservatives in his own party, and that's something that makes this somewhat of an anomalous issue. I mean, most issues in Washington, the president is looking to consolidate his Republican base. Everything he said today is probably going to give him more trouble with conservatives who are leery in some ways of this bill.

KELLEY: Ron, real quickly, how fast do you think they'll get it done when they come back from the August recess?

BROWNSTEIN: They can probably get it done sometime in September, but it won't be done by the opening day of school as the president had originally hoped.

KELLEY: Yes, that's right, Ron Brownstein, our political analyst here at CNN, thanks much.



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