by Dick Morris
HILLARY Rodham Clinton's central point of attack on Rudy Giuliani is education. She is fond of touting her efforts to reform schools in Arkansas. But her former state still ranks 49th in education. Why didn't her education reforms work? Because she watered them down under political pressure at the last minute.
As head of her husband's effort to reform Arkansas education, she developed and touted a far-reaching program to test all teachers — new and old, tenured and not — in general skills and in subject-matter knowledge. Those who could not measure up were to be given two years to pass the tests. If they still failed, they were to be discharged.
As might be expected, the teachers union reacted violently, picketing Hillary wherever she went and refusing to endorse her husband for governor, even in contests against conservative Republicans. Unnerved by these protests, she and her husband secretly used polling to undermine the tests they, themselves, had initiated.
After the tests had been administered, a worried governor and Mrs. Clinton consulted with me about the fact that a very large percentage of the teachers had done poorly. They were concerned that if they failed everyone who deserved it, they would have to fire a politically unacceptably high ratio of the teachers.
"What percent should we fail?" the governor asked me.
"What percent actually flunked the test?" I asked.
"It was a disaster," he answered. "It was way too high. If I enforced the passing grade, I'd have to flunk a third or a half of them. I can't do that. We'd particularly have to fire a high percentage of minority teachers. But I can decide what score is passing and what is failing."
At the governor's and Mrs. Clinton's direction, I surveyed the voters in Arkansas and asked them what percent of the teachers they expected to fail the new tests. It turned out that a majority expected about 10 percent to fail. Very few anticipated that as many as a third or a half might have to be replaced.
I reported the poll findings to the Clintons. When the test results were released, I was not surprised to read that only one-tenth of the teachers flunked — the ratio my poll had suggested would be politically feasible. Since even those who failed were given a period in which to take the test again, only a handful actually lost their jobs. The Clintons pulled the rug out from under their own attempt to improve education.
The resulting firestorm among teachers from even these few dismissals was tough enough for the Clintons to endure. Had the failing percentage been as high as the governor and first lady had suggested it might have been, all hell would have really broken loose. As it was, the teachers refused to back Clinton's re-election bids in 1984 and 1986 in retribution for is testing policies.
Hillary's retreat from her once-bold education reforms continues as she seeks the Senate seat in her temporarily adopted state. It is a very different Hillary that speaks out today in New York. Gone is the insistence on teacher testing and the critique of teacher quality. No more does she speak out in support of merit pay. She doesn't dare criticize the New York teachers union the way she spoke out against its Arkansas colleagues.
Hillary, formerly the teachers' worst nightmare, has now become their best friend, reveling in their endorsement and attending any rally at which two or more are gathered in the union's name. But what of her old positions?
Does she still support competency testing for teachers and advocate replacing those that fail?
Does she still support merit pay and want to look beyond seniority in teacher compensation?
Does she still favor loosening the bonds of tenure to make dismissal of teachers easier?
As Mayor Giuliani is locked in a tense struggle of wills with the teachers union, Hillary's positions on these issues acquire a new saliency. Rudy wants to pay summer school-teachers more if their students improve and less if they don't. But the teachers union is worried that this might open the door to merit pay.
Naturally, the absurd idea that those who perform better get paid more rankles with the union leadership which bends over backwards to protect mediocrity.
Where does Hillary stand?
As Hillary courts the teachers union and poses as an education reformer, her record in Arkansas keeps getting in the way. Facts are stubborn things.
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22 mar 2000