Bennett to Bush on Education: No Reform, No Deal

This partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, April 27, 2001 was provided by the Federal Document Clearing House. Click here to order the complete transcript.

SNOW:  Now joining us to talk about George W. Bush's first 100 days and what might follow, Bill Bennett, former education secretary, now chairman of, an Internet-based elementary and secondary school.

Let's start by talking about education.  The president's negotiating...


SNOW:  ... an education package.  Democrats want to increase federal spending on education something like 80 percent.

BENNETT:  Right.

SNOW:  The president has said, "Well, OK," he may be willing to deal, but he wants...

BENNETT:  Right.

SNOW:  ... to make it possible to pull funding from poor schools...

BENNETT:  Right.

SNOW:  ... if they don't perform.

BENNETT:  He's got to get something.  I mean...

SNOW:  If he didn't get something, what would happen?

BENNETT:  Well, if he doesn't get something, I think he's made a deal and spent more money, and then we're back doing what we've done every year, which is spend more money without real reform.  The proposal, when it went up originally, had a lot of promise because it talked about school choice, it said strap the money to the back of the kids, particularly in Title I, which is the country's largest federal program, the government's largest federal program for children.  This is to help poor kids learn how to read and write, and you know they're not learning how to read because you -- you've mentioned several times that national report.

So accountability, choice, change the way we do funding, testing, and flexibility -- give local authorities more flexibility -- all of those major principles, Tony, look like they're going, or at least they're being so compromised that they don't look like the original.

SNOW:  Which would mean that Republicans have to be among those going wobbly on the issues.

BENNETT:  Some of them are going wobbly.  The question that I have is -- is George W. Bush going to fight for these proposals?  Will he make this the same kind of priority that the tax proposal is?  If this is his lead issue -- but note the irony.  I mean, he -- he's a strong governor in education.  They've done a very good job in Texas.  Rod Paige is, I think,
a very good appointment.  But almost everything they have done is hinged to legislation, which means you need the Democrats to cooperate.  The heart and soul of the Democratic Party is?  The teachers unions!  Will they cooperate?  I don't think so.

SNOW:  So you think the president needs to get out and go from town to town, state to state, get on the stump and really elevate this as an issue.

BENNETT:  Really elevate as an issue, and not yield on some issues.  And if that means there's not a deal, then I'd say no deal.  But he has to show his base and an awful lot of parents and teachers -- you know, the general disaffection or the disaffection with education is growing.  More and more people are getting the drift of what's going on in their schools. 
And I think he makes a lot of points for himself and does the right thing by saying "We won't sign a deal that doesn't have substantial reform."

SNOW:  So the proper approach, as far as you're concerned, is if you don't have reform, if you don't say, as you put it, strap the money to the kids' backs, meaning that if the schools don't perform, the kids can take the money to another school...

BENNETT:  Right.

SNOW:  If that's not there, he should veto?

BENNETT:  Right.  Look what -- yes, I think so.  Look what they've been saying this week in some of the polls, that black Americans don't approve of George Bush.  Do you know one issue that is more popular with black Americans than school choice, than vouchers?  The further into the inner city you go and the more you talk to minority parents, the more they
want this kind of school choice.  It's a great thing for him to do.

SNOW:  This leads us into a debate about the way George W. Bush conducts his presidency.  It's relatively low-key.  After 100 days, how do you rate it?

BENNETT:  Oh, I rate it great.  First of all, compared to what?  I mean, after the last thing -- I mean, he wakes up in the morning, he goes to work.  He puts in a day's work, he comes home.  He kisses his wife good night, he goes to bed -- with her!  And you know -- and he starts another work day.  The air is fresh.  I mean, the country's returned to normalcy! 
I mean, this country basically runs itself.  What we -- what we don't need is a president who's a constant distraction, you know, because he's a bad example to children.  So I think the restoration, if you will, of that kind of normalcy and dignity is the most important thing.

But also, low-key.  You know, we don't have the narcissism.  We don't have the histrionics.  We don't have the exhibitionism we had before.  This is a guy with -- they claim an A-4 president.  You know, he likes to be on page A-4.  Doesn't fly out to Whidbey Air Force Base.  Good for him.  He doesn't have the be the bride at every wedding.

SNOW:  That being the case, low-key style, does his style work against him when it comes to an issue like education, when you've got a 50-50 Senate and a very narrowly divided house?

BENNETT:  No, I don't think so.  He can still be low-key, but he can be very firm, as he has shown on a couple of issues.  I mean, the way they dropped that thing off the table on the ABA -- they just said, "We will not consult"...

SNOW:  The American Bar Association.

BENNETT:  "We will not"...

SNOW:  "We're not going to run judges through you anymore."

BENNETT:  Right.  That was it, period.  And I mean, he can say the same thing about education.  "We are not going to deal unless there's some provision for real choice and accountability."

SNOW:  What do you make of the fact that suddenly there's this push to jack more money into education?  I have not heard anybody attach a program to it.  They just say, "Push more money in."

BENNETT:  Well, you know, in the absence of agreement, this is what happens every year.  This side says this.  This side says that.  Can't agree.  Well, let's just put more money in education because that always seems to be a good idea.  It's not a good idea.  I can cite the studies.  I think there are now 140 of them.  We do not make better schools by spending
more money.  You make better schools by spending more money on the right things, but we can't get those right things done.

SNOW:  You were education secretary for a president who said that there shouldn't be an Education Department.

BENNETT:  Right.

SNOW:  Should there be?

BENNETT:  Yeah.  Someone asked me once, "Must you exist,"  you know?  We don't need to have an Education Department, but we have one.  And the politics of that I think are settled, even in the -- in the -- you know, most intense Reagan days, there were I think eight votes for the abolition of the department.  But you can use the department, and I think Secretary Paige is doing some very good things.  His first public speech, he said,
"We are in the presence of a great dead monopoly," which is public education.  There are great schools out there in the public.  There are great teachers out there.  But the monopoly destroys motivation, destroys incentive, and our national performance, when measured against international competition, is poor.

Let me say it again.  60 percent of our poor kids and 60 percent of our black kids cannot read at a basic level.  What are we doing?  What are we doing to these kids?  Well, people say, "What can you do for them?"  We know how to teach reading.  This is something we know how to do.  It is a scandal that we're not doing it.

SNOW:  Let me ask you something, as a parent of -- I'm a parent of kids who are young in school.  There are all these theories that we have to change the way we taught when you and I were growing up.  You don't do phonics.  You don't do the old math.  Does any of that stuff work?

BENNETT:  No.  You know, I've sat around many a conference table or symposium table with a lot of very successful people who say "We must change thing from the way we learned them when we were growing up."  And I'll say, "Wait a minute.  You all seem to be pretty successful.  What was wrong with it for you?  What was wrong with counting, multiplication table, doing problems and drill?"  We should do what works.

There are some advances since the time I was in school and even since the time you were in school many year later.  And we should take advantage of those advances.  You know, we shouldn't be blind to progress.  But there's a kind of worship of the new.  You know, a thing isn't good because it's old, and a think isn't good because it's new.  A thing is good if it's
good.  And it turns out most of what we were doing in the '50s made a lot of sense.  There are some things we -- we've improved on, but the notion that because things fail we'll try some new method that hasn't been tested is not the way to go.

SNOW:  To wrap it up, is education the breakthrough issue for Republicans as they look toward a new century?

BENNETT:  Well, I think it certainly can be.  Again, he brings so many advantages.  I mean, the real achievement gains in Texas -- you know, the 4th-graders in Texas, the black and Latino 4th-graders in Texas have the highest scores in reading and math of any black and Latino kids in the country . That's a real accomplishment.  And that's something to build on. 
That had something to do with assessment.  That had something to do with testing and accountability, which is what the president wants in his proposals.

If George Bush can't get out of the Congress what he got out of the Texas state legislature -- because when he got it out of the Texas legislature, he improved the education of children -- he shouldn't sign onto the same old, same old.

SNOW:  All right, Bill Bennett, thanks for joining us.

BENNETT:  Thank you.  Thank you.

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