Business Leaders Challenge Bush's School Priorities
Washington--In a heated exchange with President Bush's domestic policy adviser, Roger B. Porter, several prominent business leaders active in school reform took a swipe last week at the Administration's educational priorities.
The event was significant, several observers said last week, because the Bush Administration has actively courted the business community's support in promoting its education agenda.
The spirited attack came in a lively question-and-answer session that followed Mr. Porter's Oct. 30 speech to a group of business executives and educators at a Washington seminar sponsored by Fortune magazine.
In his address, Mr. Porter touted parental choice as the nation's best hope for reforming its schools and argued that school improvement can be accomplished without spending more money on education.
Given an opportunity to question Mr. Porter, business leaders said that the Administration's emphasis on choice is misplaced and that the White House must provide more leadership on funding issues.
"I think choice is a wonderful idea," said Owen B. Butler, chairman of the influential Committee for Economic Development. "But I get upset when I see our nation's leaders acting as if choice will solve all the problems."
Mr. Butler, a key figure in the business-education partnership movement, was equally passionate on the funding issue. "I don't think the federal government can or should put up all the money," he said, "but we need much stronger leadership on this issue."
In response to Mr. Butler's comments, Mr. Porter said, "If money was the solution to our problems, we would have solved them long ago."
As Mr. Porter left the meeting, however, there were signs that he had felt the heat of the comments.
James B. Hayes, the publisher of Fortune, said Mr. Porter indicated that he saw a need to discuss with Mr. Bush the possibility of better communicating the Administration's entire educational agenda, not just its position on choice.
In an interview late last week, Mr. Porter said, "I remember talking [to Mr. Hayes] about the fact that it is challenging that you don't miscommunicate, that I hope people are clear on the broad-based approach that we are taking."
He also noted his speech covered several reform-related topics, not primarily the subject of choice.
"I think everybody has his own perceptions; certainly, choice was not the focus of my talk," he said. "Of the 16 pages [of the speech], only one was on competition. Maybe people hear what they want to hear."
Observers at the meeting suggested that Mr. Porter may have been caught off-guard by the reaction to his speech, which was similar to others he has delivered before.
"He may have thought he was walking into a friendly audience because it was the business community," a state education official attending the conference theorized.
Education observers have noted that the Administration has consistently turned to the business community to solicit advice and support in developing and advancing its education proposals.
Since taking office, they say, Mr. Bush has met with business leaders--including some in attendance at last week's meeting--several times privately to discuss education issues. In September, he met with business representatives a week before his education summit with the nation's governors.
In his address, Mr. Porter compared the nation's elementary and secondary schools to its system of higher education, saying that the former performs dismally, while the latter is well respected internationally.
Competition, he said, is one reason that colleges and universities perform well.
He also claimed the United States spends more of its gross national product on education than most other countries; that funding for education has tripled over the past three decades; and that the average per-pupil expenditure of $5,200 is adequate.
Mr. Porter also stressed that schools must have a positive climate to be successful. By way of example, he recounted the story of a friend's daughter.
After recently transferring from a public school in Winchester, Mass., to Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover, Mass., the young woman said she found many things to be better at her new school.
At Phillips, she said, teachers expect that students can succeed. That was not necessarily the case at her former school, she said.
Mr. Porter's comparisons of public schools to higher education and to an elite private school--which President Bush attended when he was young--angered many in the audience.
"The comparisons to higher education and private schools are unfair because those schools can be selective," said Albert P. Zabin, a lawyer and school-board member in Lexington, Mass. "But public schools have to serve everyone."
Mr. Zabin was the first to challenge Mr. Porter, saying: "I have problems with the assumption that competition is a magic bullet ... and with the assumption that because we have spent more of our g.n.p. means that we don't need more resources."
"Our towns would be surprised to hear that," Mr. Zabin said. "The amount spent on schools may have tripled, but so have the burdens."
He complained that the "no new taxes" position of the Administration has trickled down to the local level, "with the result being our town leaders saying 'no new taxes' when we seek to increase education funding."
His remarks drew zealous applause from the audience, causing Mr. Porter to pause and brace himself against the podium before he responded.
Mr. Porter stressed that the funding figures he used were averages, and that he understood that some school districts needed more money.
He also noted that Mr. Bush was asked at the education summit if his "no new taxes" position translated into no new revenues at the local level for education, "and his answer was, 'Absolutely no."'
The point, Mr. Porter argued, is that we need to change the system before pouring more money into it, and choice will introduce "an element of dynamism" that will spur change.
He also said he did not think "it is a profitable debate" to say that only schools that can select their students are doing well. For example, he said, at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, a record number of students have scored well on Advanced Placement tests under the guidance of the renowned teacher Jaime Escalante.
Samuel W. Webster, manager of education affairs for Texas Instruments Inc., was not convinced. While choice could improve some schools, he agreed, many other schools would not benefit, and "we want every school in our state to be a good school."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Mr. Porter responded, prompting a collective groan from the audience.
But it was Mr. Butler who brought the audience's reaction to a full roar. "This Administration is saying, 'We won't give more money to education, but we don't mind if you do,"' he said. "That is not the kind of federal leadership we need."
At that point, Mr. Porter abruptly cut the session short. He lingered only long enough to shake a few hands.
Most of the audience, however, stayed behind to continue the vigorous debate.
Some suggested that Mr. Porter invited the harsh criticism by using the Andover example. Others said that, while his speech was controversial, they thought Mr. Porter had handled the challenges well.
One educator from Oklahoma said it is "disappointing to see how naive government officials are."
Mr. Zabin said, "It's true that you can't throw money at problems, but you can't throw words at them either, and that's basically what Mr. Porter is doing."
Mr. Hayes of Fortune described the debate as "a good old American difference of opinion."
Though many observers noted that it is not clear what effect the debate will have on the Administration's education rhetoric, the lively give-and-take did prompt several speakers appearing at the conference after Mr. Porter's address to temper their remarks on choice.
Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey began his comments by saying, "I know there are problems with choice. It is not the be-all and the end-all, but it is one of the tools for reform."
And in advocating the concept of choice, David T. Kearns, the chairman of the Xerox Corporation, said, "I know it elicits strong reaction and that you had a debate with my good friend Roger Porter last night. Choice is not the panacea, but it is the keystone to restructuring schools."
The theme of the need for stronger federal leadership ran throughout the conference, even before the debate that followed Mr. Porter's speech.
In the conference's opening speech, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the federal government needs a "Manhattan Project" to upgrade its education-research efforts. In addition, he said, more federal funding for early-childhood programs is needed.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, in his comments to the conference, said that, if business leaders could make one comment to the White House, it should be: We need "front-end loading," or more federal money, for school-improvement efforts.