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LOS ANGELES TIMES / INTERVIEW : Madeleine Kunin : In the Political Trenches at the Department of Education

August 29, 1993|Jacob Weisberg | Jacob Weisberg is a senior editor at the New Republic

WASHINGTON — Madeleine Kunin's frail, elegant voice betrays no trace that English wasn't her first language. But the deputy secretary of education actually grew up speaking French in Zurich, Switzerland, before her family fled Nazi-dominated Europe for the United States in 1940. The 7-year-old Kunin, her brother and widowed mother got places on the last boat that took Jews away from Genoa, Italy. On board, 3,000 refugees crowded into 900 berths.

After the family settled in Pittsfield, Mass., Kunin took advantage of new education opportunities, becoming the first member of her family to attend college. At the University of Massachusetts, she worked as a waitress while majoring in history. She then obtained a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School, and got a job in Vermont, at the Burlington Free Press.

In 1970, Kunin and her husband Arthur, who is a doctor, spent a sabbatical year in Switzerland. Watching Swiss women fight for the right to vote was a pivotal experience for her, one she credits with pushing her toward a career in politics. In 1972, she was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. In 1978, she became lieutenant governor, and after losing a close race in 1982, was elected governor in 1984. In 1990, she chose to not seek a fourth term. Kunin herself tells her story in much greater detail in a memoir, "Living a Political Life," to be published by Knopf later this year.

After working on the Clinton transition team, Kunin was reportedly close to being named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but lost out to Carol Browner. Rather than sulking, Kunin decided to accept a less glamorous sub-Cabinet job at the Department of Education, as the second-in-command to Richard W. Riley. Since her confirmation, Kunin has been credited with developing the Administration's proposal on direct lending to college students, which President Clinton unveiled last spring. She also has focused on the department's Goals 2000 plan for primary and secondary education. She spoke while sitting in her sparsely appointed office at the Department of Education, interrupted only by a visit from the attorney general, Janet Reno.

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Question: What is the Goals 2000 proposal all about?

Answer: It is the centerpiece of the legislative agenda for the new Administration. It's about improving the quality of education in the classroom, setting high standards and defining our expectations as a nation, for the first time, of what children should know and be able to do. And it's doing so in a way that continues to be very supportive of local initiative and local innovation. We have a decentralized system of education which, by and large, has worked well. What is not working is the disparity in educational achievement among schools and communities around the country.

Q: What will it do specifically?

A: The bottom line is helping communities in a process that many are already engaged in--improving their schools. It gives them a national big picture to measure themselves by, and also get some assistance. Not everybody has to reinvent the wheel for math standards.

Q: What kind of testing does it require?

A: There's not going to be one national test. There's a recognition that this new council, the National Standards and Assessment Council, will be developing that with an understanding that different kinds of tests may be necessary. There's a lot of sensitivity--in terms of gender, interms of race--that one test may not fit all. And those kinds of questions are going to be worked out by this council.

Q: What do you say to the argument that by creating exit standards, you aren't doing anything substantive to improve education?

A: We're not only doing that. In the end, you have to figure out, have we taught our children what they should know? You have to have some standards for answering that question. If we don't ask it, certainly their employers aren't going to ask it. But we're also adding many other components. There's $420 million for school-reform grants. A lot of that can be used for curriculum improvement, or teacher training, for building up the school's ability to reach those standards. So it's not just saying, we're going to be tough and we're going to test you. We're saying this is what we expect, and we're going to help you get there.

Q: Is spending more money key to improving education?

A: No, it is not the only thing by any means. But there are certain realities. There is some correlation between poorer districts and poorer test scores.

Q: That doesn't prove that by spending more you'd improve performance.

A: It doesn't. But it's also reasonable that when you have a run-down school, when you don't have a math teacher who's been trained in math, that you don't have the same opportunities for these children. Money is one of many factors.

Q: How is it different from the Bush plan, America 2000--minus, of course, that school choice is no longer on the agenda?

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