'Number One Priority Is Education'

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Following is the transcript of Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack's April 11, 2000 interview with Vice President Al Gore about his education platform and presidential bid. This is an expanded version of the interview that appears in the print edition of Education Week. The interview took place in Columbus, Ohio, after Mr. Gore spent the day at Avondale Elementary School.

Q. During your 24 years in office, you've tended to concentrate much more on issues such as the environment, health care, and technology, than on education. Why are you spending so much time talking about education and schools now, and why should educators take you seriously?

A. I have worked for seven years on proposals to get 100,000 new teachers in schools, bring accountability, and reform, and higher standards, along with the additional resources that are needed. I have worked to expand Head Start, HOPE Scholarships and other forms of tuition assistance, and I have said from the very beginning of my campaign for president that my number- one priority is education. And furthermore, I believe we've come to a time when education has to be seen not just as additional help that produces incremental progress, but we need to revolutionize education. We're in an information age where 60 percent of our businesses have high-paying jobs that they can't fill due to a shortage of highly educated people in the workforce. We have the largest generation of students in history, and the record will be broken each year for 10 years to come. Families are under more stress, schools are being asked to pick up a larger, heavier burden, and for all of those reasons-including one more, in order to live a fulfilling life in the 21st century—learning skills are more important.

For all of those reasons, we need to concentrate on making education the number- one priority and investment in the future. And I'm having these intensive "school days" every week in order to underscore that priority, and I have pledged to continue having school days as president, if I'm elected.

Q. You've proposed $115 billion in new spending for education over the next 10 years, in particular for your universal preschool plan. Could you tell us specifically where this funding will come from, and what would happen to your programs if the economy falters?

A. I stand for fiscal responsibility and I have put out a budget plan which shows how we can present these increases within a balanced budget and continue to pay down the debt. The biggest single difference between Governor Bush [George W.] and myself is that his top priority, bar none, is a $2.1 trillion risky tax scheme that would squander not only the entire surplus in 10 years, but a trillion dollars over that surplus. He would be forced to make deep cuts in education spending. By forgoing that risky tax scheme, and instead concentrating on targeted, affordable tax cuts, we can use part of the surplus to continue paying down the debt and increasing investments in priority areas, and since I'm making education the top priority, there are resources available.

The new resources have to be coupled with new accountability-not teaching to the tests, not obsessing with particular scores, but balanced, comprehensive measures that show us whether particular school districts and schools are headed in the right direction or not.

I think we need to work with teachers to construct methods within due process—and let me emphasis that phrase, within due process—to speed up the separation of those few that don't meet the high standards that the vast majority exemplify. I think we need hiring bonuses to recruit lots of new teachers to make up for the pending retirements and to accommodate the increasing number of students and to reduce the average class size, which I think is one of the real keys. More one-on-one time is crucial.

More funding for special education is crucial because there are unnecessary tensions being caused between the parents of special education students and the parents of other students. By having the federal mandate not accompanied by sufficient resources to meet the mandate, I'm proposing as part of my plan the tripling of the largest previous increase in special education funding.

It's not a choice—we don't really face a choice between accountability and reform on one hand, and more resources on the other hand—that's a phony, false choice. We have to have both. We need reforms, we need higher standards, we need accountability, but we need more resources. We need to modernize schools, we need to build new schools, we need to wire the classrooms and libraries to the Internet, we need to give teachers the training and professional development opportunities that they've been crying out for. We need to compensate them when they take a little time to visit the classroom of a master teacher and learn new skills, we need to reward them in ways, we need to reward them for excellence in ways that teachers themselves design. In Denver, teachers came up with an innovative formula for rewarding individuals and teams that demonstrate over time the kind of improvements and excellence that everybody wants. We can't have arbitrary decisions by bureaucrats, we have to have principals and teachers at the heart of the reforms.

We also need to concentrate on school safety, and violence-free and drug-free schools, and we have to get parents much more involved in the schools. One of the recurring themes in my school days, is a plea by teachers for more parental involvement.

Q. You recently released a television ad that attacked Governor Bush's education record in Texas, noting that students there have low SAT scores. But the state's [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores, which experts universally agree are a more reliable indicator of student performance, have shown some significant gains. Is it fair for you to focus on SATs and ignore the NAEP scores?

A. I think that [Democrats and former Texas governors] Ann Richards and Mark White and [Texas businessman] Ross Perot deserve the credit for bringing needed reforms that have led to some improvement in the performance of schools in Texas. I think that if you want to dig into the details-that's really-I mean, Ross Perot deserves a lot of credit, Mark White deserves a lot of credit, Ann Richards deserves a lot of credit. That's really when the improvements came, and I think that Texans will tell you that.

Q. How would you contrast your view of the federal role in education with Governor Bush's? Some people have said that your agendas seem similar.

A. No, not at all. First of all, with his $2.1 trillion tax scheme, he will starve education, and the resources that must accompany reforms. Secondly, his plan to shut down schools that don't do well on standardized tests, and then give parents a down payment on private school tuition that still leaves them way short of the amounts needed, would obviously produce a catastrophe because most students would crowd into the nearest schools and further overburden the teachers there. His program for draining money away from public schools in the form of vouchers, which is the heart of his proposal, is like his Social Security plan—he wants to privatize it, and he wants to start what I would call a downward spiral that drains money out of public schools and toward private schools which would produce a cascading financial catastrophe in public schools, just as draining money out of the Social Security system for private savings accounts would produce a cascading catastrophe for Social Security and Medicare. It's the same philosophical formula, it's privatization—barely disguised.

Q. Education has traditionally been a Democratic issue. But this year you're running against a GOP governor who is touting his track record on improving schools at every opportunity, and Republicans in Congress who are looking to spend even more on education than President Clinton has proposed. Are you concerned about this competition and how it will play out with voters?

A. I welcome the debate, because I think there's a chance [Governor Bush] will be forced to confront reality and abandon his risky tax scheme, which would be catastrophic for the country. Then we could have a realistic debate about what works and what doesn't work. I think his voucher idea is badly flawed, I think his proposal to shut down schools and not reopen them under new management, as I would—I shut down schools, also, to a point, but I reopen them under new management, and have peer review of all teachers. But to shut them down for good and pretend that low- and middle- income families can take a little tiny voucher and go out and come up with the additional money for private school tuition and get their kids in private schools that don't have slots and don't take all applicants is at odds with reality and the challenge we face. Ninety percent of America's children go to public schools, and that is a larger number than ever before. And we shouldn't give up on them; indeed, we know how to make them succeed. We need reforms and we need resources, and we need teachers that are adequately rewarded and trained.

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 37

Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as 'Number One Priority Is Education'
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