This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, Jan. 5, that has been edited for clarity.
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BRIT HUME, HOST: President Bush traveled to St. Louis today on a combined mission. First, he visited an elementary school to talk about his No Child Left Behind (search) program, a program which has generate a fair amount of criticism from Democrats. Then the president headed off to a political fund-raiser.
So, who's right in this dispute over the president's education plan? For answers, we turn to a man whose name has long been associated with education reform. Chester Finn, who has been an education policy adviser to political figures from Ronald Reagan to the late Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan, who is currently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (search), joins us from our studios in New York.
So, Mr. Finn.
CHESTER FINN, PRESIDENT, THOMAS B. FORDHAM FOUNDATION: Yes, sir.
HUME: What about this dispute? Some of those Democrats, a number of them, voted for program and now say it is under funded. What about that?
FINN: Well, that dispute is as old as politics, at least as old as I can remember. It is election year and Democrats always say there is not enough money being spent on education. And Republicans usually say we're not getting our money's worth for the money we're currently spending.
The interesting change this year is that, for the first time in my memory, the Republicans are looking pretty good on education. George W. Bush looks like a serious education reformer and that's because he is one. And the Democrats are playing catch-up politically on this.
This was, however, bipartisan legislation two years ago. It wouldn't be shaped the way it is shaped if it weren't for Ted Kennedy (search) joining forces with George Bush to pass this piece of legislation, which incidentally, is 1100 pages long and has lot of moving parts.
HUME: Well, the thing the president always stresses in talking about it is testing and accountability. I know that when...
FINN: That's the cornerstone.
HUME: Yes. I remember when the bill passed, though; there were education reform advocate, perhaps including yourself, who there wasn't enough testing and enough accountability in it. What about that?
FINN: There's lots of testing and accountability if the states and districts actually do what they've been told to do here. The point, of course, is to just use the testing to find out where the changes need to be made, which states, which districts, which schools actually need to change and do things differently.
And the real grumbling across the education land is the grumbling of people who don't want to change what they have been doing the last 20 years, even though it has been failing. Money is sort of a red herring in this issue. The real question is ... are people going to change how they teach and what they teach and whom they teach in order that lots more kids learn like those kids in the school in St. Louis in your segment?
HUME: Now, tell me about how they compare, for example, and how they would come out in the testing to the schools, which people like you suggest are falling down on the job?
FINN: Well, that school has been on an upward trajectory. And a lot of poor kids and minority kids are obviously doing a lot better today than they were just a few years ago. And that's the kind of change that we need in tens of thousands of schools, especially schools attended by poor and minority kids. That is the spirit of No Child Left Behind. It really was bipartisan. A lot of George Bush's ideas got left on the cutting room floor because the Democrats didn't want any part of them. So what...
HUME: Such as?
FINN: Such as a lot more school of choice and a lot more flexibility for the states. Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller said no to those changes. And so what got left was mostly testing and accountability. And that was a bipartisan agreement. Testing is not expensive. What's expensive, if anything is expensive, is running your schools the way they need to be run so that kids learn more. But you just saw, in St. Louis, a good example of a school being run in a way that causes kids to learn a lot more. And that's what we need all over the country.
HUME: Well, now what is it that -- I mean you made the point that these Democrats -- we've made the points that these Democrats are criticizing this program, partly on the basis of they say there is not enough money. You make the point that the bill really isn't about the money. That's nearly a budgetary decision, I suppose. But...
FINN: Well, you know, the federal piece...
HUME: Go ahead.
FINN: The federal piece of the education budget has never been more than seven or eight cents on the dollar. It is really the least piece. States and districts pay for almost all the cost of public education. That has been true since Lyndon Johnson (search) was president. And I expect that's going to stay true. The couple of billion here or there that they're quarreling about in Washington right now is, frankly, chicken feed in the education budget. We're spending seven or $8,000 per kid per year right now in American public education. And truthfully, we're not getting our money's worth from an awful lot of schools.
HUME: How does that compare, seven or $8,000 per student, to the rest of the world's industrial, developed countries in
FINN: We're second or third in the industrial world most years...
FINN: ... on those data. Second or third.
HUME: Spending. And how about on the testing?
FINN: Well, we're in the middle of the pack headed toward the cellar in testing. The results of the international tests show our fourth graders doing pretty well. Our eighth graders around the middle of the pack and our 12 graders right down in the basement
HUME: Has there been any improvement since this bill passed?
FINN: The bill is just two years old, remember. And it has as 14- year trajectory built into it. I don't think we can say there's been a national improvement. But you can certainly point to some schools and some districts and some states that are tipping upward in these last year or two.
HUME: So, you would say that the Democrats criticizing are basically covering themselves in a nomination season?
FINN: I think they're covering themselves and trying to get the education issue back for the Democratic Party, which once upon a time, owned it.
HUME: Got you. Chester Finn, always good to have you, thank you very much, sir.
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