Saturday, October 13, 2007

Richardson: education plan & conference call, but really not ready

NOTE: this piece was created for dailykos. It is crossposted here because a number of other members of this group blog were also invited to participate in the conference call. I do not have time to do a separate diary for this site, so this gives a sense of that call, and where Richardson is on educational policy.

On Thursday morning, I and a number of other educational bloggers received an email invitation to participate in a 45 minute conference call with Bill Richardson to be held after he gave a major speech on education in New Hampshire. We were not told that this was primarily for the press, which did not become obvious until after the call began. I mention this because it is to me symptomatic of a problem that I believe will become obvious. We were given a PDF of the final education plan, different than what appears on the webpage - I will describe the differences later. Today, two days later the webpage has still not been updated to reflect this version, also distributed to the press. Only after the conference call did I receive a copy of the text of the speech, which is annoying if one is attempting to participate in a discussion about what was said.

There are some good points in the plan. In my opinion it lacks some coherence. And I have to say that the Governor's performance during the press conference convinced me that he is not ready for national office.

If you want to know more, please keep reading.

Let me begin by reminding people that if you go to my user page and scroll down, you will find that I have in recent weeks done diaries on the education plans of Edwards, Obama, Clinton and Dodd. In each case I limited myself to what appeared on their webpages. I originally had little intention of spending time on Richardson. I did the top three, added Dodd because like Obama and Clinton he sits on the relevant Senate committee. In fairness to Richardson, he has been dealing with many of the issues in his role as Governor of New Mexico, even if he seems to have peaked and begun to fade in various polls in early states (of whatever value they may be).

I also need to disclose that of the Presidential candidates still in the race, he is one of two (the other being Biden, but in 1983) with whom I have ever had a direct conversation. In 2006 in Las Vegas, I asked him a question about education during his reception. He went on for about five minutes, and then said, "but I guess I didn't really answer your question, did I?" to which I responded that he hadn't. But then, he made no attempt to answer it and went on to the next question.

Thanks to Tracy Russo (then with the DNC, now with Edwards), I was an accredited blogger at the DNC winter meeting in DC, although I could only come to the Saturday morning session. I arrived early and was stopping by the various candidate tables. When I introduced myself, one of the Richardson's staffers actually stated that I was the one who had asked a question in Las Vegas which the governor had not answered! I also later chatted with Richardson when he did his walk through in blogger's alley, showing him a picture of the two of us in Las Vegas, whereupon his only remark was how much weight he had lost.

I also need to disclose that when this cycle began, I was inclined to be favorable towards Richardson. On paper he had the best overall background of anyone in the race, and his being Hispanic had the possibility of taking a number of mountain states away from the Republicans. I was aware of a number of possible problem areas, and I had talked with acquaintances who had worked under him at Energy who raised some real cautions, even to the point of red flags. I filed those in the back of my mind in case I encountered anything relevant.

Now, let's get to Education. Richardson has a plan up on is website which can be read here . I mentioned that the final" plan sent out with the invitation to the conference call has a few differences. I will include those as I go through the plan, but I have to focus on what is currently available to readers of this diary, which is not true of the PDF of the final plan.

Let me list the title of all points on the webpage:

Provide Universal Access to Quality Pre-K Programs

Scrap No Child Left Behind

Increase the Availability of Quality Teachers

Oppose Private School Tuition Vouchers, Increase Public School Choice

Create 250 Math, Science, and Innovation (MSI) Academies

Put the Arts and Music back into Education

Increase Graduation Rates

Take Action to Improve the Health of Our Children

Promote More Meaningful Parental Involvement

Create a Nation of Service

Eliminate the FAFSA and Expand Access to Student Aid

Increase Aid to Those Who Need It Most: Expand LEAP and GEAR UP

Beyond School: The Richardson Plan for Promoting Life-Long Learning and Adult Education

Transitional Jobs and Career Training (Perkins II)
You can read the details of all of these on the campaign webpage.

The additional points in the "final" plan PDF that do not appear on the webpage are in the blockquote below, and because they are not currently accessible online, I have include the description which accompanies each point. Please note, they are NOT consecutive as they appear in the PDF.
Redesign America's High Schools - Enhance rigor, relevance and relationships within our high schools by overhauling our high schools for the 21st century.

Stay Vigilant on School Safety - Require all P-20 schools to develop and test campus-wide safety protocols and policies to be used in emergencies.

Offer Incentives to keep Tuition Costs Down - Provide financial incentives for schools to keep their tuition costs under control.

Eliminate Subsidies to Private Banks and Lenders - Eliminate the enormous subsidies to banks and private lenders and redirect that money to students who need it.

Some of these points clearly overlap the ideas of the other candidates. It seems as if everyone recognizes the importance of increasing access to pre-school. Richardson is also more blunt on a few points than the other candidates. Thus on No Child Left Behind his plan says
It is imperative that the next President ensures that states receive appropriate funding and are no longer forced to accept one-size-fits-all programs. I will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but eliminate the punitive approach of No Child Left Behind and replace it with a fairer, more comprehensive, and more supportive system of measuring progress.
He phrases it slightly differently in the final plan:
Reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but eliminate the punitive approach of No Child Left Behind and replace it with a fairer, more comprehensive, and more supportive system of measuring progress.
That sounds good, but what does it mean? In the speech he gave on Thursday, he addresses this somewhat differently:
I will convene a national summit on Educational Standards and Accountability. We need to develop national Gold Standards that the states can adopt.

We should move from a pass/fail model to a more comprehensive system of measurement. Narrow tests will only create narrow people.

In general, we need to end the policy of punishment that Bush gave us with No Child Left Behind. If a school fails, we shouldn't punish that school, we should help it.

I am focusing on the issue of NCLB and ESEA because reauthorization is before the Congress right now, with the House committee having issued their proposed version and accepted comments from the public. So let's parse this a bit.

Richardson's approach recognizes that we must continue the funding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that there must be some kind of reauthorization: Title I provides major support to schools in low income communities which we cannot simply abandon because the current punitive measures of AYP etc as part of NCLB are devastating. It is not clear how he expects to get reauthorization without some measure of accountability, given the number of Democrats (like George Miller) who have insisted upon it. He is correct that there are problems with some of the tests being used to measure AYP, but does not seem clear that the problem is less the tests than how the data is being used. His idea on national standards also seemed a problem, and was an issue on which he was questioned during the call. I took detailed notes, and since it was an on the record call, I reproduce the relevant portion here:
Greg Topol USA Today - talk about what you’d replace NCLB with -

- fundamental problem a one size fits all test. Hurt minorities, ELL, disabled students, not done anything to narrow achievement gap. Punished school with AYP. I would do the opposite.

Blue ribbon committee, including educators, to come up w/standards and accountability and testing that is representing the America people

Greg - asked if national std

Gov - it would be national standard, but arrived at in consultation w/ teachers, parents, feds, etc, not an imposed std.

Greg again - trying to clarifying, and gov does not seem to understand - he says he doesn’t want one size fits all, but still wants a national standard

Let me see if I can clarify the notes. Richardson's answer almost seems to imply he thinks that everyone is taking the same test. Of course, each state uses the test of its choice. Thus it may be one size fits all in the state, but not nationally. And yet his solution is to have national standards. When reporters tried to get an explanation of how having national standards won't still be one size fits all, his answer was somewhat vague. He was never clear on how national standards could be measured other than by one uniform national test. Given that some are advocating national tests, it was a legitimate question, one for which he should have been prepared, but to which he was unable to give an adequate answer.

I was the only blogger who got to ask a question. I asked about the school based assessment program in Nebraska, and how the assessment for accountability is done in the school by teachers. I did mention that there is review at the state level, with some outside auditing. He seemed totally unaware of what Nebraska is doing (even though it has gotten some national attention), and my notes and my memory is that his response was
he does NOT want to give that much control to teachers, he wants the input of experts
Unlike the press I was not given an opportunity to follow-up.

I found a lot of his remarks in the conference call repetitive, and not really on the point of the question. For example, note the following, again from my notes (which I did on the computer):
Emily Richmond -- one of complaints it has forced schools to drop programs for gifted, etc, what is your plan to address this

Gov - NCLB has hurt gifted students, it doesn’t include them. You have to find framework of accountability that rewards gifted students. Let’s sit in a room, get blue ribbon commission. Not one size fits all testing across the country
The mantra is "not one size fits all testing." But he is still committed to testing.

Richardson has made a big deal of establishing a federal minimum starting wage for teachers of $40,000. While this is significantly higher than pay in his state (and he has not as Governor implemented this, even though he has helped raise teacher pay so that NM has jumped from 48th to 28th in teacher compensation), it might create real inequities, given far higher cost of living in some districts, and there are even some districts whose starting paying is already more than that. He was asked about his approach to this minimum, and again I refer to my notes. The very first question was on this, and there was a later question as well, and the next two block quotes cover those questions.
Bill Petroksey DesMoines Register - what is magic about 40K?

pot of money to reach 40K level -- 3 tier licensure system, we’ve disrespected teachers, we underpay them most important element for teachers but have more accountability and licensure standards

LasVegas Review issue starting salary - would it include merit pay, how do you envision that

does not support merit pay. Does support loan forgiveness, bonuses for teachers who go into weaker schools. Issue not merit pay, rather pay teachers better

then what is the accountability you would roll in? -
well, there has to be some elements that include accountability standards, testing: do need to week out bad teachers. . .

The loan forgiveness is related to his idea of service, which would apply to teachers. For each year of service broadly defined he would forgive the loans taken out to pay for two years of public college tuition, up to a total of four years. This is a possibly interesting idea, and it is using access to education as a means of providing a commitment to service, and not just in schools.

Let me in fairness discuss a number of points in his approach that are worthwhile.

He commits strongly to arts education. The final plan PDF has $500 million for this purpose. Of course, as is typical, even his final plan does not seem to agree with the speech he gave, from which I quote the following:
I will provide 250 million dollars for the NEA's Arts in Education programs.

We will pay for musical instruments and music teachers in underserved communities throughout the country. And we will make art and music therapy available for children with emotional and developmental challenges.

I will fiercely support state and local efforts to stress arts education in their curricula. The federal government will offer extra matching funds to states that draw up their own, comprehensive art programs.
Now, I suppose he arrives at a total of half a billion by dedicating 250 million to things other than the NEA's Arts in Education programs, but it is a bit confusing. Why use a specific amount that contradicts your plan and not simply say, if it is the case, that an additional quarter billion will go to these other aspects of arts education? As someone trained as a musician and as a teacher who has seen the importance of arts and music to the education of many students, often being the reason they persist in school and don't drop out, I want to be able to support such a proposal, and hence am bothered by the seeming inconsistency.

He said in the conference call that he is fully funding HeadStart, and would fully fund all-day KG (although not require it) even though it is not in his plan. He said that he is prepared to increase the federal share of education through high school from the current level of 7% to 11 or 12%.

Richardson asserts that he pays for all of his educational programs. Let me quote from the final plan PDF:
The Richardson Education Plan will be paid for by savings that have been previously identified - and unspent - in Hard Choices: Bill Richardson's Plan for Iraq and Defense Modernization, as well as from eliminating federal college loan subsidies to private banks and lenders.
He also addressed this in his opening remarks in the conference call, where he said the total cost of his plan would be about 60 billion, of which 57 billion would come from eliminating outdated weapons systems and the rest from the "ripoff" on college loans.

There ARE some good ideas in the plan, and is notable that Richardson makes an attempt to explain how he will pay for it. I remind readers that Richardson has been consistent - if perhaps unrealistic - in saying that he would not raise taxes (not even rolling back the inappropriate Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) but would pay for his proposals - in education and other areas - by reprioritizing and reallocating.

In my intro I stated something that will not endear me to Richardson fans:
And I have to say that the Governor's performance during the press conference convinced me that he is not ready for national office.

Bill Richardson is fairly personable, and can dominate a room with his presence. We have already seen a number of statements during this campaign that have raised questions about his judgment. Most notably was his unthinking selection of Byron White as a model of a Supreme Court Justice should he be making SCOTUS nomination. His rationalization that White had been picked by Kennedy, a Democratic president, does not wash. That question is one for which a presidential candidate needs to be prepared. I well remember Bill Clinton's answer in 1992, which was Mario Cuomo. Especially given the polarization of the Court and the nominees Bush has made - remember Harriet Myer? - one would hope someone with aspirations to be president would not mention someone who opposed Roe v Wade and voted in the minority on Miranda. I think it is financially impossible to get this country on the right track without being willing to roll back at least some of the Bush tax cuts, but I acknowledge that as a difference of philosophy and policy, and in itself might not disqualify someone as presidential, EXCEPT that I think it demonstrates either an unwillingness or inability to understand the economic crisis facing this nation. I have seen a similar pattern with respect to nuclear energy, but I am not going to go off on that now.

All of that was background to what I experienced in the conference call. Here is a man who has made what his campaign has touted as a major policy speech. He has distributed a document with a final plan that almost 48 hours later is still not up on his website. That demonstrates to me a lack of organization in the campaign. Given a track record that many would argue includes fairly poor management of the Department of Energy, that raises the concerns of some of my acquaintances from background material to possible red flag. And remember, the Wen Ho Lee incident including the violation of Lee's rights occurred on his watch.

Further, there were aspects of his plan for which he HAD to expect he would be questioned, and for which he was either unprepared, or else he was simply unwilling to answer the questions as asked. I have quoted examples, on the 40,000, on why his approach to having national standards is not a ne size fits all approach of the kind he is decrying in the current incarnation of NCLB. Listening to some of the exchanges could not help but remind me of my exchange with him in Las Vegas, where he acknowledged not answering my question, but then made no further attempt to do so.

Bill Richardson has undoubted skills, which he has demonstrated over his public career. He has a real concern on some issues that matter to me, such as education. I have worried that at times he is prone to the simplistic answer without necessarily thinking through the implications. I have found him careless in some of his remarks, as the Byron White choice indicated. In this conference call I found him really not prepared to discuss in detail his own plan. That was my perception. And that lack of preparedness is shocking. Friends from Energy have told me that he was a disorganized manager. We cannot afford at this time a president - or as Vice President potential President - someone who is not ready for prime time.

I have come to the conclusion that Bill Richardson is not ready to be president.

You may disagree with my assessment. I have disclosed our encounters and our exchange on the conference call so that you can properly weigh what influence they have on my coming to that conclusion.

I do want to be clear - should Richardson be the Democratic nominee against any of the Republicans in the race, I would vote for him - after all, I have yet to see that any of them is ready to be president, and some of them downright scare me. But I will under no circumstances support him in his efforts to obtain that nomination, and I would oppose his being on the ticket as Vice President.

I think he would be well advised to withdraw from the presidential contest and go for the open Senate seat. Of course I do not expect him to listen to me, or to others who have made the same suggestion.

I pondered for more than a day whether I should write this. I decided that it would be intellectually dishonest of me to stay silent. The campaign invited me to that conference call, albeit with very little notice. The campaign probably expected that I would write something, albeit not like this. I could have simply focused on the plan, which would have been the equivalent of what I did with the other four candidates. But based on what I experienced in this process I felt I had to go further. I debated doing so in a separate diary, but then decided I wished to come to closure and move on.

This is my opinion, based on my experience and perception. Disagree if you feel you must. Ignore it. Troll rate my tip jar. It is not a conclusion I wanted to reach, but I have:
And I have to say that the Governor's performance during the press conference convinced me that he is not ready for national office.



Aaron Schutz said...

Nicely said. This is the kind of thoughtful analysis we need.

Iron-Man said...

Fascinating reading.

Anonymous said...

More blather from self-styled experts.