Bill Moyers compares the everyday experiences of two New York City middle school students and contrasts political rhetoric with the reality of American schooling. A profile of the two students and their different schools points out the inequalities of our current system and how disproportionate funding affects the quality of education.
ANNOUNCER: [TNN] It’s Nashville Now! Our guests tonight are Governor and Mrs. Bill Clinton.
HOST: I said, ”You’re from Arkansas. You’ve got to know how to do that ‘Souee pig’ yell.”
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: Ooooohh pig! Souee!
SENATE ALBERT GORE (D-TN) : I’ve been dreaming of this moment, that one day I’d have the chance to come here to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: The Governor of Arkansas’s plan really does sound like Elvis economics because [by] the time he is finished, American workers will all be checking into the Heartbreak Hotel.
VICE PRESIDENT DAN QUAYLE: Murphy Brown, listen up. Listen closely. I’m only going to say it one time. Murphy Brown, you owe me big time!
BILL MOYERS: What in the world is going on? From hog calls to sitcom sound bites, join us for Listening to America.
I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome to Listening to America. With Labor Day behind us, the politicians are out on the stump and school kids are back in class. It’s a good time to look at the politics of education. That’s the main subject tonight, as we begin a new format for this broadcast. Every week we’ll take a look at the campaign with one of America’s foremost political analysts. We’ll also report from the field with stories that are shaping the campaign and we’ll visit with some guests of motley persuasion, who will drop by here to tell us what’s on their mind.
Our field report tonight is a look by a team of talented young people who went inside two public schools and found some striking contrasts. Then authors Jonathan Kozol and John Chubb will debate vouchers and choice in education.
But first, cracking the code of the campaign. We’ll start each program between now and the election with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty is listening to American politics and translating what she hears into plain talk.
Kathleen, welcome and, in plain talk, what did you hear this week?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication: This week, Hurricane Andrew gave President Bush the chance to look decisive, to send in the Marines. That helped him dominate the news agenda, to go around the country giving out federal money, put Bill Clinton for the second time in the position of saying, “I would have done that.” And finally, the Republicans managed to keep the “tax and spend” issue front forward with their false claims about 128 taxes and fees.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at this video and I’ll come back and ask you a question about just that issue.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Who do you trust in this election, the candidate who’s raised taxes one time and regrets it or the other candidate, who raised taxes and fees 128 times and enjoyed it every time?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Clinton/Gore Campaign: [The MacNeil /Lehrer NewsHour] President Bush asked the right question there, “Who do you trust” on taxes, but then he didn’t tell the truth about his own tax record and he didn’t tell the truth about Bill Clinton’s record in Arkansas. The charge of 128 taxes has been reported as false by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, A.P., NBC News and several other reputable news or-ganizations. What the Republicans did is jury-rigged, from a list, a bunch of phony tax increases, including lengthening the dog racing season or court costs on convicted criminals.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Black, Mr. Stephanopoulos has repeated accurately the fact that many national news organizations have looked at your 128 figure and have also – it’s not just George Stephanopoulos – and have said you guys haven’t quite got it right. So how do you respond to that?
Mr. BLACK: I respond, I could go point by point through all 128, again taking verbatim out of the Arkansas Legislative Tax Handbook. And George, your argument’s not really with me, it’s with your own allies there in Little Rock. You’ve got to talk to them. They’re not dead, they’re alive and well. Go interview them and see where they got the numbers.
ROBERT D. SQUIER: The media has said – the Globe, The Wall Street Journal, which I noticed was the first newspaper you picked up this morning-
ROGER AILES: Absolutely.
ROBERT D. SQUIER: – when you walked into the Green Room and said-
ROGER AILES: You have to get some [unintelligible]
ROBERT D. SQUIER: – that the attack on him for these taxes is absolutely false.
ROGER AILES: Yeah, that’s true. He has – he raised them 143 times, I think, not 128. There is some discrepancy.
ROBERT D. SQUIER: Roger-
ROGER AILES: He says 59, some people say 143, and I think most people have averaged it out at 128.
ROBERT D. SQUIER: With all due respect – you and I are old enough to have lived through the Joe McCarthy era – this sounds like Joe McCarthy.
BILL MOYERS: Is it Joe McCarthy?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, it’s not that bad. This is, in fact, playing games with language. Bush is claiming, in a very carefully worded statement, that Clinton raised taxes and fees – underline that part that says “and fees.” Only 34 of those increases, the 128, were tax increases and the fees are such things as lengthening the dog racing season, which produces more revenue. So what the really important question here is, if you take the same criteria and use the same definitions, what about George Bush’s record? Well, it turns out, by the same definition, the 1990 tax increase for Bush raised 30 taxes and overall, if you amassed Reagan plus Bush across 12 years and compared to Clinton across 12 years, the Bush record has over 500 of those taxes and fees.
BILL MOYERS: But do the facts really play a significant role in this kind of campaign?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, and that’s part of what’s going on here. That’s what Roger Ailes is doing. He’s trying to suggest that Clinton is a classic, big-spending, big-taxing liberal when, in fact, Arkansas is far more vulnerable for the claim that it doesn’t tax enough and it taxes regressively. Now, Arkansas, when you look at the Census Bureau figures, taxes at – is 46th in taxes per $1,000 of income for a citizen. That’s not a high-tax state.
BILL MOYERS: But even though they’re playing fast and loose with the fact, the Republicans seem to be able to keep the tax issue on the agenda by repeating these charges.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And to the extent that they keep it on the agenda and it’s repeated and repeated and repeated, people come to believe that Clinton fits into the traditional Democratic “tax and spend” mode. Now, there’s a corollary, however. You know, the Democrats are guilty, too. The Democrats are going around saying Bush is going to gut Social Security.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, yeah. This week, Bill Clinton implied that Bush would be taking a wrecking ball against Social Security. Johnson did that against Goldwater in 1964.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Johnson did it. Dukakis did it against Bush. Carter did it against Reagan. Realistically, no incumbent is going to gut a popular program that has a large constituency and is solvent. That’s Social Security.
BILL MOYERS: Here is a video on Hurricane Andrew, which you mentioned earlier. Let’s listen to what both candidates had to say and then I’d like to ask you what you heard and learned from what the candidates said about Andrew.
FLORIDIAN: What hope can you give us?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think just – just being here and seeing what’s happening gives me a lot of hope that we’re going to solve these problems, working with Governor Chiles. I am so proud of our military! And everybody here is expressing their gratitude to-for the way the military’s responded. These are-these are-these are the best. These men and women are the very best!
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: I don’t want to politicize this. I think the people in Florida are the best judges of what has and hasn’t been done and they ought to be listened to.
BILL MOYERS: When hurricane Andrew struck, I thought that Bush would be put – it would become a liability for Bush because I know that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the outfit in the White House that is supposed to deal with these emergencies, is one of the most inept in Washington. And I thought, “Well, this’ll be a bad day – forgetting the personal tragedy – for George Bush.” But in the last few days, in this week of campaigning, I think he’s turning it into an asset with the use of the military. What do you think?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah. It’s interesting to listen to that Bush statement carefully because he doesn’t say, “I’m proud of FEMA.” He says, “I’m proud of the military” and that evokes Desert Storm, commander-in-chief. The real problem for Bush is that this is going to stay on the news agenda, as reporters go back and see whether the federal bureaucracy is doing its job. The troops aren’t going to stay there forever. Right now, with people moving into the tents, largely because the tents now have television, you know, with aid starting to move in, it looks as if the visuals are helping George Bush.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that a lot of people did not want to come to those tent cities until they put in television and VCRs?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It tells us how important television is in this culture and it tells us those of us who rely on print for our information really are in the minority.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, because the newspapers did a fairly good job, beginning with Michael Kinsley in The New Republic, looking at those charges about Bush’s [sic] tax record. They did a pretty good job of putting the record straight and yet television never really effectively caught up, did it?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah. Part of the problem for people who study politics is that we read a lot. The Wall Street Journal corrected the original 128 charge, said that if you looked at Bush by comparison, you’d find that he raised more fees, he raised more taxes. The New Republic, a more suspect source because it’s considered to be liberal, basically made the same point. But that doesn’t mean that the word defuses out into a mass public. What a mass public hears is, “128 taxes,” “128 taxes.” They miss the distinctions that are more readily carried in print. This is a pretty complex question. Television doesn’t do well with complexities and when it does handle them, it handles them once. Most people aren’t even exposed to that single instance.
BILL MOYERS: There was on television this week a debate about debating. Tom Brokaw put a question to both Clinton and Bush about whether they would debate later in this campaign. Take a look at this.
TOM BROKAW, NBC News: [“The Brokaw Report’] Are you going to debate George Bush?
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: Absolutely. Why are you asking me? I accepted the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Debates and I challenge Mr. Bush to meet me in Lansing on the 22nd of this month. I have accepted. It is they who have not accepted.
TOM BROKAW: Are you going to debate him one-on-one?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I expect there’ll be debates. I’m in no great rush to let one commission or another set the ground rules, but our campaign will be in touch and I’m sure – I’ve debated every time we’ve been in this level of politics.
TOM BROKAW: Why are you resisting the idea of just going head-to-head with Bill Clinton with just a single moderator?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I’d let others think out the way it worked. I was very happy with the set-up that we had in 1988. There you had several different people asking questions and I found that format to be agreeable. So let’s see. Let our people talk to theirs. It’s no great big deal. There’ll be debates.
BILL MOYERS: Now, the Republicans have been bashing the press since Houston for breakfast, lunch and twice after dinner – liberal press, press friendly to Clinton, they keep saying. And yet here Bush is saying, “I won’t debate Bill Clinton unless the press asks the questions.”
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: George Bush has a good relationship with reporters. He’s held more press conferences than any president in recent history. He wants the predictable format of questions from people he knows. He knows the kinds of questions they’re going to ask. He knows the kinds of answers he can give. He also would like a format in which there’s minimal follow-up because that minimizes the likelihood that they’re going to hold him tightly accountable for answer after answer.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he knows that Clinton is also very good on his feet, one-on-one?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Clinton’s not only good on his feet, Clinton has practice in the format recommended by the Presidential Debates Commission, which is a single moderator and no press panel. Clinton was most effective in those kinds of interactive formats. It’s also advantageous for Clinton to be as interactive with Bush as he can because the more he gets to exchange as an equal, the more he looks like a president.
BILL MOYERS: So Bush here is trying to control the way the debates are held so that he gets the upper hand. That’s typical for every politician.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It’s typical for every politician. In fact, historically, the press panel didn’t want to be there. The academic community doesn’t want the press panel to be there. The politicians want the press panel to be there with predictable questions that don’t necessarily help the electorate much.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think that the debate about the debate this week helped to push off the scene some very important substantive discussions that took place?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The debate about the debates actually occurred so late this week that it didn’t push much off the agenda, but it’s going to in the coming weeks. Part of the tragedy about not accepting the Presidential Debates Commission recommendation is that we’re going to waste time in the news agenda determining which candidate has the strategic upper hand in debate negotiations. In the process, we’re not going to learn about the important differences between the candidates’ educational proposals – we all but lost that this week – and their health proposals. We all but lost that this week because of Andrew and draft charges.
BILL MOYERS: Draft charges and Iran-contra. Do you consider the accusations that went back and forth on Clinton’s draft and Bush on Iran-contra distractions, or do you think there’s something substantive in that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No. There’s been a lot of discussion in the last decade about what do we need to know about the person who would be president. And the whole fidelity matter is an area that – there’s lots of question about whether in fact it has anything to do with governance. But nobody thinks that whether a person lies is irrelevant to governance. And this week, the renewed questions about Clinton and whether he’s told us the truth about the process by which he avoided Vietnam and the renewed questions about Bush and Iran-contra raise what I see as a central question about the character of both candidates. Do they tell us the truth?
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at this video.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I don’t know about that. I’ve told very openly everything I have to say about it. I don’t know about that memo and I find nothing – you know, I see no reason to contradict myself at all. I think what I’ve done is give the facts as I’ve seen them. So I don’t – I saw a story on it and, to be honest with you, I didn’t read it.
1st REPORTER: Do you know what they’re talking about in this conversation-
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No. No.
2nd REPORTER: Do you think the draft issue will ever go away?
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: What?
2nd REPORTER: Do you feel like this-
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: No. I don’t – no. It’s – that’s enough – I don’t – it was all news to me. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, you know, it just
2nd REPORTER: It just won’t go away?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: What I think is that that’s been looked into by millions of dollars worth of investigation under this Walsh hearing. If I had done anything wrong, Tom, they’d have been all over me like you can possibly imagine. And I haven’t. And this seems to me to be just a late smokescreen out of that dead old saw out there.
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: These different stories are being put out two months before this election by two people who come from camps that have not been friendly to my election who now have a recollection of things that happened 23 years ago that they never said that I was unaware of until 1992, not 1969, so – or 1968.
BILL MOYERS: Why isn’t the press testing more effectively the sources of information that are put into play like that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The biggest problem the press has had this year, the biggest deficiency in press coverage, has been in that exact area The press did not tell us, and what it told us, it told us parenthetically, that the source of the information about Clinton, information that had not been available any time in the last two decades, is a person who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for governor of Arkansas in 1960 and was an alternate delegate to the Republican convention in 1968. That is a suspect source whose motives ought to be questioned.
The press also didn’t tell us, with one major exception, Newsweek, that Gennifer Flowers’ credibility is highly suspect. Gennifer Flowers says she had trysts with Bill Clinton at a hotel that wasn’t even built at the time of the trysts. Then to turn it around, the press never bothered to tell us on the allegations about the Bush so-called affair that the tape recording from the now-dead person who made the original charge doesn’t support the claim that was originally advanced in the news agenda. The press ought to test the credibility of sources before it pollutes the political environment with charges and counter-charges. We are owed that as a public.
BILL MOYERS: You said earlier that some very important things were missed this week because of the debate over the debate, about Iran-contra and all of this. What were these? You said health care?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: At the very end of this week, there were substantive speeches given by both candidates showing, first, a very important Bush alternative. There now is a Bush health plan out there. And Clinton also gave us a reprise of his health care plan and then in the middle of the week, as the draft charges were emerging, Clinton’s educational plan got lost completely. Essentially, what we read about were the charge, counter-charge about draft and we missed the major Clinton speech on his educational agenda.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’d like for you to come back later in this broadcast and talk with me about the politics of education. But first, I want us to take a look at a report that was produced for me by four recent high school graduates here in New York. I met them last year at the Educational Video Center. That’s a non-profit organization where high school youngsters learn to produce documentaries about their communities. When I asked Linden Harrigan, Carolie Jenkins, Carol Roman and Dawn Sparks what they wanted the politicians to address in this election year and then to do a report on it, this was their choice. Carolie Jenkins narrates.
NARRATOR: As graduates of the New York City public school system, we decided to go back to school, but this time we took our videocameras to give the public an inside look at the kind of education children are getting today. We looked at two New York City junior high schools in the same district, but in two very different communities. Junior High School 141 is located in the middle class Riverdale section and I.S. 137 is in the poor and working class South Fordham section of the Bronx. We followed the experiences of two seventh-graders, Lonnie Smith and James Kelley. Both are bright students who spent their elementary years in gifted and talented classes. When we first met them, Lonnie told us he wanted to be a lawyer and James said he wanted to be a veterinarian. Through their eyes, you will see the different and unequal educational opportunities offered to them in schools only a few miles apart, but in reality two worlds apart.
We talked with David Jones of the Community Service Society, an advocacy, research and social service agency.
DAVID JONES, President, Community Service Society: We have a major crisis here. There is a chasm now between the educational quality being given to non-minority children who happen to be in the middle class and inner-city and rural children, as well, who have the ill fortune not to have a lot of resources or political clout. And that’s going to break the back of this democratic system faster than anything else, if it continues.
MELVIN KATZ, Principal, J.H.S. 141: The Riverdale community and the Riverdale school is almost an anomaly. It provides a suburban setting in a major city like New York City. It’s tree-lined, co-ops, private homes, and in a beautiful area. It is a residential area and provides youngsters with living in the city and being able to get a suburban education. And I think that this is one of the auras that makes Riverdale a very special school.
[on public address system] Good afternoon, staff and students. This is Mr. Katz with an important announcement. All students please put their pens and pencils down and pay careful attention.
MICHAEL SPIVAK, Principal, I.S. 137, South Fordham, Bronx: [speaking into walkie-talkie] If you pick up any visitors or anybody else in the vicinity, please let me know immediately.
[to students] Let’s go, guys. Everybody in. Let’s go. Ladies, you’re four minutes late and you’re not even moving, so you’re going to be five or six minutes late. Come on. Let’s go. Come on. What are you – you’re going the wrong way! Let’s go! Well, now we got you turned around. OK. Let’s go.
[to interviewer] This can be a rough environment over here because the kids are here and I said to myself, “If it’s not safe enough for me, then it can’t be safe for a 12- or 13- year-old child.” So that’s the way it is and every single day, every morning for about a half hour, every afternoon for about three quarters of an hour, and often at lunch time, I come out here and – what they do in middle America, we’re going to do right here because these are the same youngsters as anywhere in the world. So anyway, welcome to my turf.
LILIANE MOORE, Lonnie’s Mother: That’s the only principal I know that would get out there early in the morning and walk from corner to corner to make sure the kids go to school. I worry a lot about them going to school, especially Lonnie. I’m in my window constantly, from the time he leave out the building until the time he comes home.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever get scared going to school?
LONNIE SMITH: No. I live right here. Ain’t nobody going to touch me.
LILIANE MOORE: You live right – well, I’m scared for you. What you mean, you live right here? I can look out the window one minute, the little girl downstairs that go to that school, she was out there fighting two weeks ago.
LONNIE SMITH: That’s her. That’s how she is.
LILIANE MOORE: I was scared for her. I’m surprised you said that you don’t feel scared. You so scared, you don’t even go outside at night to go to the store. You’re scared. You’re scared to go to the garbage for me and we live right here on this floor. It’s not funny, it’s sad. It’s not – he is actually scared in the daytime to go empty the garbage.
NICOLE, Lonnie’s Sister: I told my aunt to take me in the back room because I was scared because there was – there was people shooting and then when I woke up, I said, “Oh!” And then – because I was – and I was dreaming a terrible dream, too.
INTERVIEWER: Do you like that? Do you like what you see?
NICOLE: No. I want to just move out of this neighborhood because it ain’t right.
LONNIE SMITH: The richer school’s got more opportunity because they live in a – their environment is better than ours. They say that we live in a ghetto, that’s why we don’t – we ain’t going to be nobody and we ain’t going to make no money or nothing. The people around there, they live in houses and all that nice stuff, and that’s why people treat them – treat them better than they treat us. That’s what I think.
NARRATOR: We spent over six months in both the Riverdale and South Fordham schools, sitting in on classes, talking to students, teachers and parents. We found many differences in the kind of education the students received. For example, in South Fordham students learn to play music on electrical keyboards. But in Riverdale, the students play instruments in a full band. They also have an outdoor track and field. But in South Fordham, they have no school field to play in. Instead, they play volleyball, baseball and basketball indoors in a crowded gym.
One of the most striking differences we found was in teaching.
CARL SOLOMON, Lonnie’s Science Teacher: Sit down! Now! Participate like human beings today! Take out your textbooks! Take out your notebooks and at least look like you can do some work!
NARRATOR: Lonnie’s science teacher is uncertified to teach science. Because of the lack of teacher training and classroom equipment, this is a typical science experiment.
CARL SOLOMON: Put one foot up on the chair.
STUDENT: What, the left one?
CARL SOLOMON: I don’t care. I don’t care which one you do. And for the next two minutes, I want to see everybody just doing this.[steps up on the chair with each foot alternately, as in climbing stairs] Ready? Go. Straight down on the chair and straight off the chair. All right, stop. Think about how your legs feel. Think about – Jerry, listen. Think about how your heart feels. Think about how your lungs might feel right now.
[to interviewer] The city of New York affords you the opportunity of going in to teaching without a degree, if you have some skills. I had taught – because of my dance background – I used to teach dance and I’ve done other kinds of teaching. I was a lifeguard. I used to teach swimming.
DAVID JONES: You go out to a suburban ring school, you find fully certified, fully trained math and science instruction. You go into the inner city and you’re very likely to find a gym teacher teaching math and science or someone who’s never taken one educational credit in that area. Doesn’t mean they’re not good people, and I think we have to distinguish this. There’s been an argument, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter as long as they have heart.” We know that good training helps teachers do a better job.
MICHAEL SPIVAK: We have uncertified teachers in many, many departments in our school, far beyond – we have a profile of our faculty and it’s far beyond the numbers in many areas of the city that might be considered a more comfortable place to teach. And so people with certification will find jobs out of the city or even in the city, in areas that they’d rather work in.
MELVIN KATZ: We are very fortunate that almost all of our teachers are teaching in their licensed area, that they are specialists in math, specialists in social studies and in science and communication arts and technology. The reasons for this, basically, are that I think good things happen to good schools. People have been fighting for many years to become members of the staff here.
FANNY DRESDNER, James’s Science Teacher: Now, listen carefully. What I want you to write on the sheet that you just got in front of you is “Microscope lesson number 1.” And this is the first in a series of four labs that you’re going to have. Look through the eyepiece and make sure that your image is clearly focused.
JAMES KELLEY: When I grow up, I want to be a veterinarian. I love animals.
INTERVIEWER: So tell me, what does it take to be a veterinarian?
JAMES KELLEY: Well, you have to be good at science. You have to – I don’t think you can say, ”Well, I’m not going to be a baseball player, so I’ll be a veterinarian.” You have to really want to be one, like I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian. I’ve never wanted to be a baseball player or anything like that. You have to be hard-working, I guess, and you have to have a lot of patience.
FANNY DRESDNER: He walks in in the morning and he’ll ask me, ”What are we doing today? What are we going to do? Are we going to go on with microscopes? When is our next laboratory lesson?” They love that. Children love hands-on. So if you can gain a child’s interest, you have that child.
CARL SOLOMON: Just take your notebooks for a second and lift it up off the desk. Is that heavy? Is that heavy?
CARL SOLOMON: But in the realm of things, is that heavy to you?
CARL SOLOMON: No, it’s pretty light. Put it down. Do you think that’s going to affect your muscle that much?
CARL SOLOMON: No, you’re not really working your muscle. So that’s – that’s your resting heart rate. You haven’t affected your muscles that much to make them that tired. You could probably do this for a good 30 minutes and not get tired. All right. Excuse me one second. You guys are being very rude and you’re disappointing me. Now, you’re not paying attention and you’re playing around. I want it to stop now.
[to interviewer] I’m stopped by some outburst going on somewhere in the room at least seven or eight times during a class period. If I’m lucky, I get to teach 15 minutes out of a 42-minute period. I’m going to be a licensed reading teacher in November next year. I requested next year, my preference is to teach only reading. I don’t want to teach two subjects. This was a very difficult thing to do and, as a second year teacher, I find it very hard to manage.
LONNIE SMITH: Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to go to school, but I have to.
INTERVIEWER: Who says you have to?
LONNIE SMITH: Me! I have to go to school. If I don’t go to school, what I’m going to do, sit home and be a bum, be out on the street?
DAVID JONES: The least trained and least senior teachers, with no education credits in their specialty, in the very poorest neighborhoods, where there are all sorts of problems that we in social welfare know full well, is an abuse of those individuals who are struggling so hard, and particularly to the children and their parents, who are trying to get up and out of poverty.
LILIANE MOORE: Don’t act innocent. I know what you’re doing.
LONNIE SMITH: What?
LILIANE MOORE: Now, get inside your classroom and I have to sit up here with you today. It’s not funny!
[to interviewer] The math teacher called me and said he’s failing his class, he’s not doing his work, so that’s why I’m up here today. I have to sit down here and watch him and make sure he keeps his mouth closed. This is terrible and he’s not a dummy. He’s a smart kid, but he’s fooling around with his friends.
ALBERT STUART, Lonnie’s English Teacher: We’ll go into our groups and finish reading this story and this afternoon, we’re going to do some writing based upon this story. Now-
[to interviewer] Lonnie’s mother came in and she sits down and I commenced to teach the lesson. She knows and I know that Lonnie’s a very bright student. Lonnie has the potential to do very well in life and go far and Lonnie can become whatever he wants to become. More parents need to do that, to realize that if my son or if my daughter is not doing well, I’m going to come to this school. I’m going to sit down. I’m going to sit in the back of the room. I’m going to be there and that will make a difference. And hopefully it makes a difference with Lonnie.
FANNY DRESDNER: [parents’ night] James is like this. James will wait till the last minute when he knows he has an exam, even though I announce it two weeks in advance. Is that correct, James?
JAMES KELLEY: Yes.
FANNY DRESDNER: I mean, let’s be honest. Let’s be straight. He’ll wait until the last minute and you can’t memorize all of that information. You just can’t know it all. I was very disappointed in the 66 and he can do better. He’s competing with children that are very bright and that also are hard workers. It’s one thing to be very bright, but with being bright, you have to work hard to do well. All right? God didn’t give brains to everybody, James.
NARRATOR: Despite the resources available in Riverdale, James’s mother is concerned about classroom overcrowding and the quality of education he’s receiving.
JAMES’S MOTHER: I feel terrible. I’m very disappointed. I always – when people were starting to take their children out and send them to private school, I was very saddened by it. I felt they – children should go to public school and it just seemed like the right place for my children to be. My options are either to have him go to public school, which I’m not happy about, or private school, which I really – the cost is so high.
NARRATOR: A school is part of a larger community. The kind of activity the community offers its children after school is almost as important as activities that go on during school. When school is over, Lonnie has few places to go. He spends his afternoons playing video games at a nearby pizzeria or playing basketball in the schoolyard down the street. Lonnie’s neighborhood has few community resources that can give young people a safe and productive environment to enjoy after school.
James, on the other hand, spends his free time in the Riverdale Community Center, which is located in his school. The community center is supported by the Parents’ Association and the neighborhood and is a good example of a school turned into a community resource. The effects of this community involvement are reflected in its youth.
JAMES KELLEY: I think the kids in our school, they want to learn and they want to – they want to advance as much as they possibly can. They show respect towards the teachers and stuff.
1st BOY: When I grow up, I probably want to go to Columbia University and be an architect or a doctor.
2nd BOY: I either want to go to Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, anyone of those Ivy League colleges, and either be a lawyer or a professional basketball player.
1st BOY: I think everybody in America has an equal opportunity to do what they want because if they work hard, they can get what they want.
LONNIE SMITH: I want to become a professional basketball player. I want to play for the Bulls.
INTERVIEWER: Why’d you change your mind about becoming a lawyer?
LONNIE SMITH: I’m saying my mind. I don’t really know why I changed my mind about being a lawyer, but I just changed my mind. I’m going to college, but if basketball don’t work out, I’ll always – I know I could be a lawyer.
NARRATOR: We went with James on the last day of school to pick up his report card.
JAMES KELLEY: Nope, didn’t fail anything, thank God – 95,90,75,80,80, 80, 75 and 65. OK. I didn’t fail anything.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Lonnie and his mother try to find out if he’ll make it to the eighth grade.
LILIANE MOORE: He tells me he’s bored with the work. It’s not hard enough for him.
ADELE CASTALDO, Lonnie’s Guidance Counselor: When he gets all 90’s, he can tell me he’s bored with the work and we’ll see about changing him to a harder class, but with the grades that you have, there’s no indication that the work is too easy for you. I’m just glad you’re not on the hold-over list, that you are going to the next grade. Well, you saw his report card in April, right?
LILIANE MOORE: Yeah. Well, I seen that. That was a disaster and I know he’s capable of doing better than that. It’s like I said, he’s been – he was in the gifted class from first grade.
But this is very important because this is your education, your future. And you want to be a lawyer, it’s not going to come this way.
CARL SOLOMON: Out of nine assignments, he did three, including the book report, which I wasn’t pleased with because it wasn’t – he didn’t really follow directions. So out of nine assignments, he did three. In fact, only one, two, four people did all the work I asked them to do this quarter. They thought it was a joke. Nobody came – after the third quarter grades, almost nobody came to class prepared.
LONNIE SMITH: I ain’t coming to this school next year. I ain’t!
DAVID JONES: This is not a black issue or an African-American, Latino issue. This is an issue of growing concern to every American who doesn’t have a lot of resources and happens to live in an area that may be poor, may be working class, or even lower middle class. If they – we don’t see some change nationally on this issue, their children – and that means more than half of the population of America – are going to be in serious trouble.
LILIANE MOORE: There’s nothing to get mad about. You did it to yourself. But I know one thing, next year those grades-I better not see no 75’s on that report card.
LONNIE SMITH: I’m going to this school next year?
LILIANE MOORE: Yes, you are.
LONNIE SMITH: All right. I ain’t learned nothing from that science class. I don’t know how I’m supposed to do well in high school science. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
LILIANE MOORE: I want him to become a lawyer. He has to – this way is not the answer. And like he said, if we stay here, he’s not going to make it. He’s not going to make it.
BILL MOYERS: Four of the Educational Video Center producers are with us in our studio. A year ago, I asked them and their colleagues at E.V.C. “What’s the one issue you would like to see the presidential candidates debate most consistently in the 1992 election?” Their answer was, “Education.” Now I want to ask John Chubb and Jonathan Kozol, both of whom have spent their lifetimes looking at American education – I’d like to ask you to talk to each other about how you think this idea that’s being debated in the campaign, that’s in the platform of the two parties, vouchers, would make a difference in the quality of education. Jonathan Kozol?
JONATHAN KOZOL, Author, “Savage Inequalities”: First, Bill, I have to say that video is just terribly moving. As you know, I started out as a teacher 25 years ago and it’s just heartbreaking to see how little has changed, still segregated, still unequal, after all these years. The voucher plan that President Bush has put forward is a frivolous plan. It’s frivolous and it’s dangerous. The $1,000 voucher he’s offering won’t buy a poor family anything. But for a middle class family, a family at the $40,000 level, for example, a family who’s already got part of the tuition for a private school, that $1,000 may just make the difference and will subsidize their flight from the public system. I’m frightened at the possibilities that we might see a splintering of – a splintering of the common school tradition into separate little enclaves of individual self-interest, everyone competing against everyone else.
BILL MOYERS: All right, you’ve got a good bit to reply to. You all try to address this between the two of you.
JOHN CHUBB, Co-Author, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools”: I think – I not only think, but on the basis of all the research that we’ve done in the last 10 years, I’m really utterly convinced that if you have a system where parents are choosing, a number of positive things happen. Number one, the schools in this marketplace, if you will, become focused on the concerns of parents and kids, doing right by them first, because they have to or the parents won’t come. And when parents become number one and not just another interest group, schools tend to push more resources down to the school site. They tend to treat their teachers better be-cause teachers are really the crucial ingredients in education. So you have more resources in the school, treat – the teacher is given more authority over the educational process, schools reaching out to get parents involved, which obviously is crucial, and finally, kids being in schools that they want to be in. You put all those things together and – more parent involvement, kids there voluntarily, teachers empowered, more resources – generally, that is a recipe for a good education. And I think that you’re far more likely to get those ingredients in schools that are concerned about parents first, rather than concerned about the superintendent or concerned about the board of education. And that is the kind of world I envision, in which, finally, people are given the opportunity, parents are given the opportunity to choose, whether they are rich or poor – the thing that horrifies me about American education today is that the people who are preyed upon most by the existing system are poor folks, people of color, who live in big cities, trapped in these politicized, bureaucratized school systems, unable to make the choices that middle class people make because they can afford a residence. We have a choice system today in this country. It goes by the name of “Buy a house, buy a school.” [crosstalk] And it’s horribly, horribly unfair and so it’s not just a matter of school improvement that I think that choice is a good idea, but I also think it’s a matter of equity.
JONATHAN KOZOL: But to open the education market to the private sector, to private schools, troubles me profoundly. It worries me enormously for a lot of reasons. First of all, to use an old-fashioned metaphor, if you want to improve the public water supply, you don’t do it by starting private reservoirs because then the people who have access to the private reservoir won’t worry about the water that the peasants are still drinking. So that worries me profoundly. And it’s not just education. Opening vouchers to the private market is really part of a larger pattern that we’ve seen in the past 10 years, the whole thrust towards privatizing. And this – you know, the whole Milton Friedman idea that the private sector always does a better job than the public sector. If you look at private sector services in ghetto communities in the United States, I don’t think you would ever – you would ever support that notion. For example, have you ever tried to get a mortgage in a slum neighborhood? I have because I lived in a Boston ghetto. The private banking system is a grotesque – a grotesque anomaly in the ghettos of America. The private-
BILL MOYERS: Grocery stores are much more expensive.
JONATHAN KOZOL: The grocery stores! I was just going to ask you. I used to have to buy my meat and milk and produce in a ghetto private enterprise grocery store.
JOHN CHUBB: There’s a very-
JONATHAN KOZOL: It cost more, rotten. Private doctor – did you ever try to get a dentist?
JOHN CHUBB: There’s a very simple explanation for this.
JONATHAN KOZOL: But that’s the private market.
JOHN CHUBB: Let me explain. The problem – the problem that private enterprise faces in poor areas is that people are poor. People don’t have money. In our public Medicaid system, people get less because Medicaid doesn’t pay sufficiently-
JONATHAN KOZOL: That’s right.
JOHN CHUBB: -to purchase what they need.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Medicaid is a kind of voucher system, is it not?
JOHN CHUBB: Well, a very, very limited kind.
JONATHAN KOZOL: A bad voucher system.
JOHN CHUBB: Exactly. The key to making choice work for everybody is to design a system where poor people actually have the resources that are necessary to make a choice. That means if you’re going to have choice that goes out of the public school system, it’s important that the government be willing to support, in a very substantial way, the ability of poor people to make the same choices as everybody else. In our book, we recommended that not only resources be equalized in a choice system and that rich people not be able to top off their vouchers with private money and generate inequity, but we recommended that poor people be given additional resources.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Because their needs are greater.
JOHN CHUBB: Because their needs are greater. Exactly. If people are genuinely empowered economically to make choices, then the schools – the schools will certainly be there. For example, if you believe in public school choice and you really believe in the power of the choice mechanism, then you must be willing, as a public school administrator, to say, “Nobody wants to go to that school over there. We’re going to have to do something about that. Either we’re going to have to close it, we’re going to have to move those personnel out.” But public school choice has to respect the decisions of parents.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask a couple of very specific questions. If students are given vouchers, can the schools then pick and choose among the students with the vouchers? Isn’t the choice then the choice of the school?
JONATHAN KOZOL: They always do. They always do. No matter what restrictions exist, no matter how we say the schools will be open to everybody, the schools are always selective because there are ways of being selective while seeming open. You can simply refuse to offer services for kids with grave difficulties, for example.
JOHN CHUBB: I do think that there has to be a safety net procedure to guarantee that everybody – that everybody receives a school of choice. Let me just make one final point about this. It always perplexes me that when people think about a choice environment and the kinds of decisions that schools would make, that they assume that schools will always insist on trying to educate and trying to accept only the easiest-to-educate kids, only the best kids, so to speak. I think that if you’re going to operate a school in a neighborhood where kids have difficulties, if you want to make it as a school, you focus on kids with difficulties. I don’t see any reason why educators-
JONATHAN KOZOL: See, that’s where I deeply disagree with you, John. I disagree with you there. That’s sort of the notion that you’ve spoken about in your writing, where you spoke of sort of different schools serving different children differently. I’m worried that that will open the flood gates to re-intensified segregation of our schools. In fact, if – ask yourself this question. Under an absolutely open voucher system, what rich, white parent will ever freely choose to send their children to a school with poor black kids? It will never happen. Despite all your good intentions and your integrity, I believe that the largest sector of support for vouchers in the United States is basically a sector of people who are traditionally bitterly opposed to desegregation and profoundly racist. And I believe that this-
JOHN CHUBB: Jonathan, you-
JONATHAN KOZOL: I’m not characterizing you, so let me finish.
JOHN CHUBB: Now, you’ve spoken, so-
JONATHAN KOZOL: No, no. I believe that this is the motivation-
JOHN CHUBB: You also know that this is-
JONATHAN KOZOL: -for the Bush administration and I think this is why they’ve supported it. It panders to the same people who found the Willie Horton ad attractive.
BILL MOYERS: Answer that, John Chubb, or respond to that.
JOHN CHUBB: Jonathan, I – you know that that’s patently false. If you look at-
JONATHAN KOZOL: No, it’s true of the Bush administration! It’s not true of you, John.
JOHN CHUBB: Am I going to speak?
JONATHAN KOZOL: Sure.
JOHN CHUBB: If you look at public opinion polls over the last decade and you ask who is supportive of choice, who is supportive of private school choice, what you find is it’s always the same thing. The people who have no choice now -inner city people, racial minorities those are by far and away the strongest supporters of choice. Suburban people are rather indifferent. Rich people are rather indifferent. In fact, one of the great ironies – one of the great ironies is that the Republicans are trying to sell this when their constituents really are not that concerned about it and the Democrats are opposed to it when their folks are crying out for it.
BILL MOYERS: I want to ask both of you, on this issue of parochial schools – in parochial schools, religious instruction is mandatory. If we provide public funding for children to choose parochial schools who are not of that faith, are they going to be required to attend the religious indoctrination?
JOHN CHUBB: Well, it’s up to the – it’s really up to the parents whether they want to place their kid in a religious school or not. If they place their child in a religious school, then they will take religious classes. But that’s their choice. People make that choice all the time.
BILL MOYERS: If you don’t think choice will work, what will work to equalize public education?
JONATHAN KOZOL: I think, for the first time in America, we ought to create truly democratic schools by abolishing the present funding system, which is based upon local property tax, which is inherently unjust, inherently unfair because it rewards the people whose folks have the most expensive homes with the most expensive schools. [crosstalk] And replace it by an equitable funding system on a national basis, deriving from the federal income tax. There’s no other ethical way to do it.
BILL MOYERS: New Jersey and Texas have both tried to equalize education and are failing.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, that’s because it’s been –
BILL MOYERS: Because of political opposition.
JONATHAN KOZOL: And it’s because it’s been done only at the local level. We have not had a president who took the leadership and said, “These savage inequalities are intolerable. I’m going to change it.”
BILL MOYERS: But people nationwide do not want more taxes for anything.
JONATHAN KOZOL: We needn’t have more taxes. If we abolish the property tax and replace it-
JOHN CHUBB: If we took the taxes that we have now
JONATHAN KOZOL: -with an income tax-
JOHN CHUBB: -and we equalize-
JONATHAN KOZOL: You agree on that, do you not?
JOHN CHUBB: If we took – how you do it, I think-
JONATHAN KOZOL: Sure.
JOHN CHUBB: -is open to debate-
JONATHAN KOZOL: Sure.
JOHN CHUBB: -but I do think that every child in America ought to have the same financial resources. But I am not in favor of equalizing resources within the system we have right now, which-
BILL MOYERS: Because?
JOHN CHUBB: -which squanders resources on bureaucratic expenditures and creates an environment in which good schools can’t thrive and in which parents and teachers aren’t honored.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much John Chubb and Jonathan Kozol. And thanks to the young people at the Educational Video Center who produced that report.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what the candidates have to say and where they stand on this issue of vouchers and school choice.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: My new approach offers scholarships or vouchers for students to take to any qualified school, not only qualified schools, but Bible schools, yeshivas, Catholic parish schools. And when it comes to schools, I say let the parents choose – public, private or religious.
GOVERNOR BILL CLINTON: I don’t mind good, healthy competition. If private schools want to get up and get going, let them have at it. Let anybody who thinks they can do a good job in education and meet standards and have their kids measure up get after it. I just don’t think that, with the situation we’re in now, we can afford to divert public funds to private schools when we’re already uncompetitive.
BILL MOYERS: Under President Bush’s currents proposal, families with incomes below the state median, usually $40,000 and under, have two choices. They can choose a voucher of $1,000 per year per student for either public or private schools, including religious schools. Or, if they choose a public school, $500 would go to the school and $500 would go to the parents for supplemental education or transportation.
This is not the first time the President has proposed a choice plan. His other initiatives have been held up or defeated in Congress. The Democratic candidate, Governor Bill Clinton, has had public school choice in his state, Arkansas, since 1989 and he supports choice on a national level, but for public schools only, not for private or religious schools.
Where do you think, Kathleen Jamieson, that this issue of supporting private schools with choice and vouchers cuts politically?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The Catholic Reagan Democrats have a strong incentive to vote for George Bush if they think that they’re going to get a $1,000 subsidy for sending their children to Catholic schools as a result of that vote. Those who are evangelical Protestants who send their children to Bible schools have a strong incentive to vote for George Bush. This is an issue that essentially takes a constituency that Ronald Reagan put together in 1980 and tries to hold it by offering it a very tangible economic reward for a Republican victory.
BILL MOYERS: What nonplusses me about this is that, whether it’s Clinton’s proposal for vouchers for public schools or Bush’s proposal for vouchers for all schools, is the funding of it. I mean, they’re both talking about programs that cost money, but neither one of them is suggesting, factually, how we can pay for it.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The difference between Bush and Clinton isn’t that either one is telling us how to pay for the education initiatives, but that the focus of the education initiatives is at a different educational level. Bush is stressing aid to elementary and secondary schools. That’s what this voucher choice plan is. Clinton, who doesn’t favor that, is stressing aid to help students get to community colleges and colleges. And so their rhetoric actually bypasses in the night. One’s talking about access to college, the other is talking about a choice within the elementary and secondary school system.
BILL MOYERS: And Jonathan Kozol said earlier that the way to pay for this would be by abolishing the property tax and coming up with some other tax, but presidents don’t have anything to do with property taxes.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, that’s – part of the irony of all of this is that both of your panelists are recommending some form of equalization, but first a voucher system which gives somebody $1,000 doesn’t pay for access to most private schools in the United States. And President Bush isn’t proposing giving students the actual tuition that would let them move from school to school. It’s more likely, as a result, that what he’s doing is. giving those who are already paying private school tuition a $1,000 rebate on that tuition. But to the extent that the problem is unequal property tax, property taxes are set at the local level. The state courts are now dealing with the issue of unequal distribution of resources as a result. That really isn’t a federal jurisdictional matter.
BILL MOYERS: Does this make you cynical, then, this discussion at the presidential level about education?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think it’s important that we’re addressing the question of education. I wish that we were addressing it in a more substantive way that asked how we’re going to make education at the elementary and secondary level more competitive in a global economy.
BILL MOYERS: We’ll be talking about some of these issues over the coming weeks, as we get closer and closer to the campaign, trying to decode the campaign message.
Thank you for joining us on Listening to America. I’ll be back next time with Kathleen Hall Jamieson and some others, talking about the religious right, values, cultural elites and politics. I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.
You can view more about the Listening To America series on this website.
This transcript was entered on April 9, 2015.