Next President Must Lead On Education, IBM Chief Urges
Louis V. Gerstner Jr. likens the so- called "education president" to the unicorn, a fabled beast that magically appears every so often "and then—poof—disappears."
Yet myths can have great power, the IBM chairman and chief executive officer told some 1,000 people gathered last Thursday at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club.
Mr. Gerstner said that the president of the United States lacks any real policymaking authority in education, but that the commander-in-chief has the stature as the nation's top elected leader to quell divisiveness and build a consensus for change.
"We can't start with symptoms. We've got to attack the problem," he said. "So what we need from our president, first and foremost, is a broad, consistent, articulate message that says, 'We are going to fix the problem that is public education in America.' "
The 58-year-old IBM chief knows firsthand the challenge of trying to drive school improvement from the national level, having tried to use his status as the head of a Fortune 500 company to leverage higher academic standards and greater accountability in a system largely controlled at the state and local levels.
As the co-chairman of the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group Achieve Inc., with Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, Mr. Gerstner recruited 10 states last year to sign on to a $2 million effort to create an 8th grade mathematics test that is intended to match those used in the world's academically top-performing countries. ("Coalition of Governors, Business Leaders Plans for New Math Test," May 12, 1999.)
Mr. Gerstner urged whichever of the current presidential candidates succeeds President Clinton to give a yearly televised address to the nation on the state of education and to issue an annual report card on the public schools.
"Mr. President, will you use the awesome platform of your office to minimize the noise and distractions and keep the debate focused on the right issues?" Mr. Gerstner said. "Will you create an environment in which the urgent need for reform is understood? Will you help parents understand that when we ask our kids to step up to more challenging courses and pass tests to demonstrate what they learned, we're doing it because we love them?
"Do that, Mr. President, and you'll do some good."
Mr. Gerstner's pleas aside, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had little time to talk about education—one of their favorite subjects—when they met last week for their second presidential debate.
The first portion of the 90-minute event, held at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11, focused on foreign policy. Even after moderator Jim Lehrer shifted to domestic issues, he didn't ask the candidates any questions about their education platforms.
But the candidates did manage to work in some comments on the subject.
Mr. Bush, the Republican nominee, used a question about racial discrimination to talk about education. He stressed the importance of accountability in ensuring that disadvantaged children learn. "There's nothing more prejudiced than not educating a child," he said.
When Mr. Lehrer later shifted the questioning to gun control, Mr. Gore said he hoped "we can come back to education" so he could lay out his differences with the governor.
When that chance didn't come, the vice president devoted most of his closing statement to the topic. While agreeing with Mr. Bush on the need for more accountability, he contended that the governor's tax-cut plan would leave too little for education. "If the tax cut is your number-one, -two, - three, and -four priority, you can't do education," Mr. Gore said.
The third and final presidential debate was set for Oct. 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, the fallout from Mr. Gore's comments on crowding in Florida's Sarasota High School during the first presidential debate was still being felt last week.
The vice president came in for criticism after the Oct. 3 debate for saying that classrooms were so crowded in the school that 15-year-old student Kailey Ellis had to stand during class. He based his comments on a Sarasota Herald-Tribune story that Ms. Ellis' father had sent him.
The school's principal soon responded that Ms. Ellis had stood for only one day, because of new equipment in her science classroom, and that no students in his school stand on a daily basis.
In last week's debate, Mr. Gore apologized for getting "some of the details wrong" the week before. But, he added, "however many days that young girl in Florida stood in her classroom, however long, even if it was only one day, doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of overcrowded classrooms in America, and we need to do something about that."
But Jill Barton, the Sarasota reporter who wrote the newspaper story, said in an interview last week that Kailey Ellis' experience was not unique. "There were plenty of other students standing on other days," she said, adding that district budget cuts have led to larger classes.
She suggested that many news-media accounts had oversimplified the situation, and that some have been inaccurate. "Many members of the national media missed more details than [Vice President Gore] did," Ms. Barton said.
Wilma A. Hamilton, the superintendent of the Sarasota County schools, confirmed last week that the student had stood for a day in her science class, but said that the situation had been rectified. "Every student in Sarasota has a desk," she said.
Overall, the superintendent said, while the current media attention has been distracting, it has also inspired debate among students. "It's really made it all come alive for the students," she said.
Just how many seats do the Democrats need to win in November's elections to take control of the House of Representatives?
It seems like an easy question, but the answer varies depending on whom you ask. Some say the number is six; others say seven or more.
Upon the recent deaths of Reps. Bruce F. Vento, D-Minn., and Herbert H. Bateman, R-Va., the composition of the House shifted to 222 Republicans, 209 Democrats, two Independents (Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has generally voted with the Democrats, and Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia, a former Democrat), and two vacancies.
The Republicans held a slimmer majority until this past summer, when Rep. Matthew G. Martinez of California joined the GOP after being defeated for renomination in the Democratic primary.
Technically, since Republicans hold a 13-seat advantage, Democrats would need to gain at least seven seats to regain a majority. But there are different interpretations of those numbers.
Last week, the House clerk's office referred the question to the speaker of the House's office, which determined that the correct number was seven.
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee maintains that the number is six, and thus publishes the "Six Seat Sentinel" and proclaims "Six Seats to a Democratic Majority" on its Web site.
According to a DCCC spokesman, that's because of Mr. Martinez's seat. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Hilda Solis, is running unopposed in the general election, so the Democrats are guaranteed of regaining that seat. That means they would need only six more seats, the spokesman said.
CQ Weekly, Congressional Quarterly's weekly magazine an authoritative source on Congress, considers the correct number to be six and Roll Call, a Washington newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, also reports the number as six. But The New York Times said last week that the Democrats need to win seven seats.
Students polled by Weekly Reader have accurately predicted the outcomes of the past 11 presidential elections, according to a spokeswoman for the Stamford, Conn.-based magazine for schoolchildren.
Every four years since 1956, Weekly Reader has conducted its own student mock vote, and the outcomes have been remarkably similar to those of the actual elections.
That similarity can be attributed to students' picking up on their parents' opinions, according to Carol Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the magazine.
"People really do talk about their views around the dinner table, and the kids are listening," she said.
In 1964, the students chose Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson over Republican Barry M. Goldwater by 62.2 percent to 37 percent.
In the actual election, President Johnson won 61 percent of the vote, and the Arizona senator won 38 percent.
In 1992, however, 64 percent of the youngsters in prekindergarten to 3rd grade voted to re-elect incumbent President George Bush over his Democratic rival, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
But Weekly Reader students kept their perfect vote record overall because 50 percent of the older students chose Mr. Clinton, who won the general election with 43 percent of the vote.
Ballots for this year's mock election were sent to students in pre-K through 12th grade in mid-September.
Results will be released Nov. 1.
—Darcia Harris Bowman, Joetta L. Sack,
Erik W. Robelen, & Michelle Galley
Vol. 20, Issue 7, Pages 22-23Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Election Notebook