On Last Day, His Favorite Mix--Some Pedagogy, Much Politicking

By Julie A. Miller — September 28, 1989 5 min read
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William J. Bennett ended his combative tenure as Secretary of Education here last week in the style he has become noted for, assailing Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic Presidential nominee, in blunt, partisan terms.

At a news conference in a Beacon Hill hotel, arranged at the behest of Mr. Dukakis’s Republican opponent, Vice President George Bush, Mr. Bennett called the Governor’s education record “undistinguished,” contending that he had done little to promote reforms.

It was a typically busy day for Mr. Bennett that began in Nashua, N.H., with a news conference in support of U.S. Representative Judd Gregg’s campaign for governor of that state. He then visited an elementary school in nearby Hollis with Mr. Gregg and the current governor, John Sununu. There, he spoke with a class of 2nd graders, asking the now-familiar question: “What makes this a good school?”

Mr. Bennett has often said that the best part of being Secretary of Education is visiting exemplary schools, and aides said he thought it fitting that he spend his last day in the job adding one more--the 107th--to his list.

“This is a sentimental moment for me,” he told an assembly of parents, teachers, and students at Hollis Elementary School, one of 237 schools honored this year by the federal recognition program.

But it was equally typical that much of Mr. Bennett’s last day as Secretary was devoted to partisan appearances, at which he focused on attacking Mr. Dukakis.

Inaccurate Comparison?

He began the attacks indirectly at the Gregg event, comparing Massachusetts schools unfavorably with those in New Hampshire.

“I regard New Hampshire as something of a model for the country,” Mr. Bennett said, noting that the state’s average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are among the highest in the nation and praising the amount of control local authorities have over schools.

In contrast, he said, the record in Mr. Dukakis’s state “is not very distinguished, despite all the educational resources of Massachusetts,” and “they don’t have the tradition of local control.”

When pressed, Mr. Bennett said later that a higher percentage of school funding in Massachusetts comes from the state, but did not explain how that translates into greater state control.

In fact, schools in both states are run by autonomous local school boards. The state has little control over local decisions, said Edward Melikian, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Education, noting that the only state curriculum requirements are those2p4mandating courses in history and physical education.

And while more than a third of school funding in Massachusetts comes from state coffers, almost all of it is delivered in the form of “local aid” payments to towns. That money can be used for any purpose, but towns typically spend a large portion of it on education.

Which Massachusetts?

At the Boston news conference, Mr. Bennett charged that Mr. Dukakis had done little to improve education while other governors pushed initiatives aimed at increasing school accountability, getting rid of poor teachers, increasing parental choice, and creating alternative certification routes for teachers.

“Massachusetts had an average performance [in education] 10 years ago, and it has an average performance now,” Mr. Bennett said, contending that he did not criticize Mr. Dukakis before he became a Presidential candidate because “there wasn’t much of an education record to speak of.”

In his 1986 “wall chart” message, however, Mr. Bennett cited increases in sat scores that moved Massachusetts into seventh place among the 22 states that use the test, and praised reforms designed to “improve teacher quality through testing of new teachers, performance incentives and alternative certifications to attract the most qualified candidates into teaching.”

Mr. Bennett first suggested that some of the gains could be credited to Edward J. King, who held the governor’s post from 1979 to 1983, when Mr. Dukakis won it back. When reminded that the initiatives were included in a 1985 law supported by Mr. Dukakis, Mr. Bennett conceded “that may well be,” but re8peated that “the Governor’s record is not distinguished.”

Brickbats for ‘Dukakis Crowd’

Mr. Bennett also attacked Mr. Dukakis for vetoing two bills: a recent proposal that would have allowed parents in several large cities to send their children to suburban schools, and the 1977 bill that would have fined teachers who failed to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Continuing the Bush campaign’s emphasis on the pledge veto, Mr. Bennett called it Mr. Dukakis’s “most famous educational act.”

Mr. Bennett refused to apologize for remarks he made about the pledge issue in a recent television appearance, which implied that residents of Cambridge and Brookline “disdain” patriotism.

He said last week that his remarks applied only to Mr. Dukakis and his advisers, many of whom have ties to those towns. The Secretary added: “A lot of the Dukakis crowd, the Dukakis advisers, do have, I think, a sense of intellectual superiority and do tend to look down their noses at the basic and instinctive patriotism of a lot of the American people.”

Student Demonstration

Mr. Bennett has often been besieged during his tenure as Secretary by college students protesting student-aid cuts proposed by the Administration, and his last day in office was no exception.

A crowd of “students for Dukakis” demonstrated across the street from the hotel where Mr. Bennett spoke, chanting “Where was Bill?” and shouting at him as he entered and exited. “Grade for Bill Bennett: F,” one placard stated. “Made a lot of noise in class and didn’t accomplish anything.”

A group of Massachusetts politicians, who held a pro-Dukakis news conference a few blocks away at the State House, focused on criticism of the Reagan Administration’s education policies, not all of it accurate.

“A lot of hard-working people in my district, because of policies of the Reagan Administration, can’t afford to send their kids to college,” said U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy 2nd. He added that Mr. Bennett “is an individual who was hired by Ronald Reagan to dismantle the Department of Education and he hasn’t even been able to do that.’'

While Mr. Bennett has said that the department is not necessary, he has not advocated abolishing it, and President Reagan announced during Mr. Bennett’s confirmation hearings that he would no longer seek to eliminate it.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as On Last Day, His Favorite Mix--Some Pedagogy, Much Politicking

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