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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. These are the main news headlines today. Reagan officials pressed the case for aid to Nicaragua's contras while religious leaders accused the administration of lying. The South African government said it would end its state of emergency this week. A Philippines government commission said the Marcos family may have plundered $5 to $10 billion. The index of leading economic indicators fell in January. Details of these stories in our news summary in a moment. Jim?
LEHRER: After the news summary Bishop Gumbleton of Detroit and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams engage in the new debate over U.S. policy in Nicaragua, and we have a documentary report on going to school at home. News Summary
LEHRER: It was another big Washington day on the contra aid front. The Reagan administration accelerated its new push for $100 million in aid for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, and a group of U.S. religious leaders stood up against it. The opposing Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy gathered on the Capitol steps, held crosses for Nicaraguan dead and spoke strong words of criticism.
Bishop THOMAS GUMBLETON, "Witness for Peace": The administration has been deceiving the public in its quest for military and so-called humanitarian aid. Most notably, it has been covering up numerous credible reports that the contras are systematically committing human rights atrocities against innocent civilians. The contras are not freedom fighters. The United States should not conduct its foreign policy by funding paramilitary groups to subvert sovereign nations.
LEHRER: The administration continued comparing the Philippines revolution to the situation in Nicaragua. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said in a Washington speech the U.S. played a positive role in ousting repressive governments in the Philippines and in Haiti, and aiding the contras in Nicaragua is part of that same human rights policy. Secretary of State Shultz made a similar Philippine comparison in an appearance before a House committee, and drew a challenge. Here is how that went.
GEORGE SHULTZ, Secretary of State: The fact of the matter is that the people we're wanting to support have their forces come to them. People come to them voluntarily. The people that we're opposing have to coerce people into their armed force. So there's a message there about what side the people are on. And I think lessons from the Philippines -- let's not overdo it, but certainly one of the lessons from the Philippines is that somehow or other in the end if they have half a chance the will of the people will prevail.
Rep. DAVID OBEY, (D) Wisconsin: I think we ought to point out that we didn't win in the Philippines by giving Mrs. Aquino $100 million in military aid. The administration said, and the President correctly said, we had to let people on the ground in the Philippines do it themselves. It seems to me, Mr. Secretary, that if we were to truly take the lesson that we need to take out of the Philippines that we wouldn't be giving $100 million to the contras. We would be trying to support the efforts of the countries in the region to achieve a negotiated solution by more than simply giving lip service to those efforts.
LEHRER: Also today, the human rights group called Americas Watch issued a report on Nicaragua which took all sides to task. It said there were human rights abuses by the Sandinista government and the contra guerrillas, and said the United States must assume responsibility for those committed by the contras. Robin?
MacNEIL: In South Africa, Prime Minister P.JJW. Botha said the government would lift the current state of emergency by Friday. It was imposed last July to curb anti-apartheid demonstrations and rioting in black townships. Botha also said August 1st is a date to start implementing a plan for the independence for the neighboring state of Namibia. And in Johannesburg a bomb exploded at the main police headquarters in a downtown square. Here is a report by Michael Buerk of the BBC.
MICHAEL BUERK, BBC [voice-over]: John Vorster Square has a special place in the folklore of black South Africans. This is the headquarters of the police special branch where the more political suspects are interrogated and detained. The bomb went off in a toilet on the corner of the second floor used mainly by white detectives. It was a powerful explosion, scattering debris into the streets.
WITNESS: All I heard was a bang, and I just walked up and saw this. All the policemen were just trying to get out of the police station. They were just running for their lives.
BUERK [voice-over]: It was lucky there were no deaths. Passersby were injured and taken to hospital, where some are still being detained. The two policemen injured were not seriously hurt. John Vorster Square is a symbolic target for the government's enemies. Suspicion inevitably centers on the outlawed African National Congress. The headquarters building is sheathed in steel, fortified against attacks from outside. The thought was the ANC might use rockets from a distance, not walk a bomb through guards and checkpoints on the gates. The explosion seems a moral blow for the ANC, the timing unconsciously perfect. Less than two hours later, President Botha, a man not lucky with his timing, stood up in Parliament to announce he was bringing the state of emergency to an end. He said conditions had improved, appealed for all South Africans to back him, to show understanding and join in negotiations.
MacNEIL: The main anti-apartheid organization, the United Democratic Front, said it was concerned that the government would replace the state of emergency with new laws which would in effect extend it. In Washington, the Reagan administration welcomed the state of emergency announcement and described the Namibia deadline as a positive step.
The fourth round of U.S.-Soviet arms talks ended today in Geneva with each side blaming the other for lack of progress. Chief Soviet delegate Viktor Karpov said they regretted there was no positive American response to their proposals. The U.S. delegation leader, Max Kampelman, said the Soviets were not fulfilling commitments made at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. He spoke at a news conference.
MAX KAMPELMAN, U.S. Arms Negotiator: The reason in the view of the United States delegation is that the Soviet delegation has not acted to fulfill the commitments undertaken by our two leaders in the joint statement of November 21. We return to Washington in the hope that President Reagan's response to General Secretary Gorbachev's January 16 proposal can bridge differences.
LEHRER: Ferdinand Marcos, his family and close associates may have accumulated up to $10 billion during his 20-year rule. The chairman of a commission to investigate the Marcos wealth said that today in Manila. Efforts to pursue Marcos' holdings continued today in the United States. The Customs Service told a federal court in Hawaii it will list the contents of the 22 crates Marcos brought with him from the Philippines. They are reported to contain valuables and at least $1 million worth of Filipino currency, money the Philippines central bank wants back. In New York a federal court temporarily blocked the sale of five buildings allegedly controlled by Marcos. The five buildings are worth more than $350 million. Also today in Manila, judges on the second-highest court say they will quit. President Corazon Aquino wants all Marcos appointees to step down.
MacNEIL: The World Jewish Congress today accused former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim of concealing his Nazi past. The Congress said Waldheim belonged to a Nazi student union and was attached to a German command in World War II that sent 42,000 Greek Jews to death camps and murdered thousands of Yugoslavs. World Jewish Council President Edward Bronfman said Waldheim's denials for 40 years was one of the most elaborate deceptions of our times. Waldheim, who is a candidate for president of Austria, claimed today that he was the victim of a smear campaign. He denied belonging to Nazi organizations. He did serve under an Austrian general, Alexander Lohr, who was executed for war crimes. But Waldheim said he never knew of any atrocities committed by the general's unit.
LEHRER: The Education Department issued a report today on what works in the classroom. It listed 41 teaching techniques that do. The report got its unveiling at the White House, where Education Secretary William Bennett and President Reagan demonstrated one of the 41, memorization.
WILLIAM BENNETT, Education Secretary: I am told that you're the world champion memorizer. Do you recall something that starts, "There are strange things done in the midnight sun"?
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: " -- by the men who moil for gold."
Sec. BERNNETT: "The Arctic trails have their secret tales -- "
Pres. REAGAN: " -- that would make your blood run cold."
Sec. BENNETT: I give up.
Pres. REAGAN: I don't know whether in school they still read Robert W. Service, but to just conclude that particular stanza, it would then be, "There are strange things -- " no, we've done that. "Northern lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge? I cremated Sam McGee."
MacNEIL: In economic news, the government's main economic forecasting statistic, the index of leading indicators, fell six-tenths of a percent in January. It was the first fall since April, 1985. The Commerce Department attributed the fall to special factors and predicted healthy growth ahead.
The price of a major grade of U.S. oil, West Texas intermediate crude, touched a new low today, $12.15 a barrel, but recovered in later trading to $12.43. Some analysts said the oil price slide is not over yet, and predicted that it could fall as low as $8 a barrel. West Texas intermediate was selling for nearly $32 a barrel last November.
LEHRER: And that's it for the news summary. Now, Bishop Gumbleton and Assistant Secretary of State Abrams debate U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and we have a documentary on staying at home to go to school. Debating Contra Aid
LEHRER: Nicaragua. Here it is again, front and center as the foreign policy issue of heat and emotion. The new round of debate centers around Reagan's request to Congress for $100 million in new aid for the anti-government contra guerrillas. Mr. Reagan, Secretary of State Shultz and other officials were out in force yesterday and again today making the arguments for the aid, saying, among other things, that it's the Philippines all over again. A group of 200 prominent religious leaders joined members of Congress in the counter-effort to defeat the aid proposal when it goes to a congressional vote later this month. They say, among other things, supporting the contras is a grievous error and there is no similarity at all to the Philippines. A principal debater from each side of this new argument is with us. First, from the administration, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams.
Mr. Secretary, what is the similarity between peaceful revolution in the Philippines and the military, or the attempted military revolution in Nicaragua?
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: The side we're on. We're on the side of democracy. We're trying to get rid of a dictatorship and help people who want to live in a democracy to do so. But, as Secretary Shultz said, you can't push it too far, for one reason. There was no communist government in the Philippines. Had those people stood in front of tanks in the Philippines as they did, what happened? Marcos couldn't give the order to roll over them. But the order from the communist government of Hungary in '56 was "roll over them," and in '68 it was Czechoslovakia. And it is today in Nicaragua. You cannot pressure a communist government in the same way. They don't have the same -- you can't appeal to Western, democratic traditions because they don't believe in them. They hate them. They say they're Leninists. So that's the main difference. But the similarity is we're on the right side in both cases, democracy.
LEHRER: The religious leaders said today that the administration is deceiving the American people by covering up the abuses committed by the contras that the United States is supporting.
Sec. ABRAMS: Well, it would be a little bit funny if it weren't a little bit sad. We don't cover anything up. There is so much information around I think the average congressman and the average citizen has trouble trying to find out how to put it together into some decent composite portrait of Nicaragua. But the notion that we're covering anything up is -- it's incredible to me when you consider the number of reports that come out from human rights groups and so forth. I just want to mention one that came out today --
LEHRER: The Americas Watch group one?
Sec. ABRAMS: No, not the Americas Watch report.
LEHRER: Not the Americas Watch report.
LEHRER: Okay. I'll ask you about that one in a minute.
Sec. ABRAMS: Someone from the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace testified today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about repression in Nicaragua, especially about repression of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, the expulsion of priests. If I can just read a paragraph. "The Sandinistas have banned national televising of the Catholic mass, shut down the Catholic radio station, suppressed the Catholic Church newspaper, confiscated its printing press, seized the church social welfare office, illegally drafted seminarians, imprisoned and deported priests, prevented the establishment of a church human rights office, prohibited open-air masses, and hampered the church's capacity to teach, minister and proseletize. Two Social Christian Party activists were brutally murdered in November, one after being tortured." They go on to talk about clandestine state security prisons, outright torture, solitary confinement -- totally dark, no food, no water; an air war involving bombing and strafing of villages in the Indian areas. That's from somebody at the Carnegie Endowment who is just back from Nicaragua as an observer on an international Leage for Human Rights mission there. That's the reality of what's going on under the Sandinistas. It's pretty grim.
LEHRER: And you're suggesting that the contras are not committing abuses?
Sec. ABRAMS: No, I'm suggesting that there is no guerrilla war without abuses. I think we should recognize that right out. There may be no war without abuses; there is certainly no guerrilla war without abuses. How do you stop these abuses? We learned a lesson in El Salvador. We gave military aid to the army. There was a fight in Congress. The President went to Congress, he won; we gave the military aid. We gave them a lot of training. And everybody acknowledges, even Americas Watch, that human rights abuses in El Salvador are way, way down. It is unfortunate that Bishop Gumbleton voted against military aid for El Salvador as well as Honduras and other countries because it's this kind of aid where we can try to train and professionalize a force that ends the human rights abuses and turns them into a real good professional army.
LEHRER: You mentioned Bishop Gumbleton, and we're going to hear from him now. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes, also with us tonight is the man who read the religious leaders' statement at the Capitol today accusing the administration of exaggeration, misinformation and outright falsehood. He is Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, and he joins us from that city's public television station, WTVS.
Bishop, what are the outright falsehoods your statement says form the heart of the administration's case against the Sandinistas?
Bishop THOMAS GUMBLETON: There are many of them. One of the first ones that we insist upon is that it's a lie to call the contras freedom fighters. The contras are, many of them, are from the former Somoza regime. They are terrorists; they are committing atrocities. Mr. Abrams suggested that we claim they're covering this up. No, they're not covering it up. It's impossible to cover up the atrocities of the contras. They are trying to blur the situation, though, by calling these people freedom fighters, and that is an outright lie. And I don't say that based on so-called mis- or disinformation from the Sandinista government. This is based on witnesses. Witness for Peace has had thousands of people from this country go down there to see what is happening. We have religious communities throughout the whole country of Nicaragua who report to us the atrocities that are being done by the contras, the killing of women, children, elderly men and mutilating their bodies afterwards. These are the kinds of things that the administration denies, and that is an outright lie. The contras are not freedom fighters.
MacNEIL: What about the bulletin of particulars that Mr. Abrams just read from the Carnegie Endowment witness, all of which concerned the Catholic Church in Nicaragua? Committed by the Sandinistas.
Bishop GUMBLETON: Again, we don't have to go to outside groups to tell us what is happening in Nicaragua. The church in Nicaragua -- 80 of the population in Nicaragua are Catholic, and so the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua certainly knows what's happening to them. The churches are not closed; religious education is being given. Priests are free to preach. People are being ministered to, and the bulk of the people are very strongly supportive of their government. It is not anything like the Philippines situation where you had those hundreds of thousands, and even millions of people out in the streets in a nonviolent way protesting the government. We're not on the side of the people in Nicaragua. We're on the side of the terrorists in Nicaragua.
MacNEIL: Mr. Abrams says the similarity is that the U.S. is on the right side in both cases, the side of democracy against dictatorship.
Bishop GUMBLETON: I think there is a parallel to the Philippines, if you go back into history a little bit, and I think it'll indicate how we are on the wrong side. In 1934, February 21st, one of the leaders of the Nicaraguan people was assassinated in a very cruel way, Sandino. And it was done by the Somoza head of the government there, who was put into power by the United States. At that point we chose which side we were going to be on, and it was the side of the tyrant. And we have continued to be on the side of the tyrant ever since. In the Philippines we finally made a different choice. It was only in 1984, of course, President Reagan was saying that it was either Marcos or communism. Suddenly he's found out that there is an alternative when the people speak for themselves.
MacNEIL: Let's --
Bishop GUMBLETON: In Nicaragua the people are speaking. They are saying they want their government. They voted for it in 60-some percent. And they are not out in the street protesting that government. You cannot find tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.
MacNEIL: Okay, let's come to the point of this debate, and that is the President's request for aid. You're against it. He says if he doesn't get it that rejecting it, will deliver Nicaragua permanently to the communist bloc and put Soviet bases on the U.S. doorstep. Do you see such a risk?
Bishop GUMBLETON: Well, first of all, you see, that merely proves the point, that we're on the wrong side. If there were such a protest of the people in Nicaragua as there was in the Philippines, we wouldn't have to be sending military aid. They themselves could do what they did in the Philippines. And so, again, the fact that he demands that we have to send aid in there simply proves that we're on the wrong side. And the government in Nicaragua is not a Marxist-Leninist government. They are trying to do something that hasn't happened before. If we would listen to people like the foreign minister, Miguel D'Escoto, who has described the philosophy of that government very, very carefully and very accurately. They are trying to bring about a change so that the poor people for the first time in the history of that country, at least in the 20th century, will be able to share the resources and the goods of that nation. And they have brought about a revolution. There is no question about it. Land is being redistributed, peasants are being able to grown their own food. They are gradually becoming a free nation where they have a chance to share in the wealth and the resources of the nation. That is not going to continue if aid is given to the contras and that government is overthrown.
MacNEIL: Okay. Jim?
LEHRER: Gentlemen, we have about 30 points to cover. First of all, the Bishop's point, Secretary Abrams, that it's not a Marxist-Leninist government down there in the first place.
Sec. ABRAMS: Well, it's incredible. It's just plain incredible. Mr. Borge, Mr. Ortega, all of the nine commandantes, all of them, have said that --
LEHRER: Those are the nine rulers in the government.
Sec. ABRAMS: The nine rulers in the junta, they are Marxist-Leninists. This is a government closely allied to the Soviets and the Cubans, and I'm sorry to borrow from this Carnegie text, but I want to read one sentence. "After the events of October, 1985" -- that's the state of emergency which eliminated civil liberties -- "there are now few people still innocent or foolish enough to believe Sandinista promises." I'm afraid the bishop is one of them.
LEHRER: Bishop Gumbleton?
Bishop GUMBLETON: Well, there you have it. Miguel D'Escoto is a Roman Catholic priest, a personal friend of mine. He is not a Marxist-Leninist. He is the foreign minister; he's one of the nine. Why would Mr. Abrams claim he's a Marxist-Leninist? There is no foundation for that.
Sec. ABRAMS: No, I'm at a slight disadvantage in this discussion of your role and the church in Nicaragua. But just a second. I cannot --
Bishop GUMBLETON: But I want to finish.
Sec. ABRAMS: Excuse me. Excuse me. I cannot permit you to pose as if you were speaking for the church of Nicaragua. You do not speak for Cardinal Obando, nor does he share your view of the situation there.
Bishop GUMBLETON: But, Mr. Abrams, you don't have to tell me who is the church of Nicaragua. It's not Cardinal Obando. The church are the people. That's who the church is.
Sec. ABRAMS: No, excuse me, sir, but I nd you're not --
Bishop GUMBLETON: The religious leaders in Nicaragua, the --
Sec. ABRAMS: I always thought the church had a hierarchy and that the cardinal and the bishops deserve some respect in it.
Bishop GUMBLETON: I'm not saying that they don't.
Sec. ABRAMS: You do not represent the --
Bishop GUMBLETON: I'm a member of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church --
Sec. ABRAMS: Not in Nicaragua.
Bishop GUMBLETON: -- and we do deserve respect, I hope.
Sec. ABRAMS: And you are not taking the position that they take. They are opposed to this crackdown, and they have protested it.
Bishop GUMBLETON: You see, if you could --
Sec. ABRAMS: And you are not supporting them.
Bishop GUMBLETON: No, but if you could only understand that the church is represented by those three million people, 80 of whom are Roman Catholic. That's the church. And the people who minister in the parishes and in the villages and in the hospitals and in the dispensaries, they are the ones that are telling us that they're free to practice their religion. They are not being persecuted.
Sec. ABRAMS: Bishop, you are -- this is not the position of the Vatican or of the Holy Father or of the Archbishop of Nicaragua.
LEHRER: What about -- excuse me, Gentlemen. What about the bishop's point that the majority of the people support the government of Nicaragua, because if they didn't they would be out doing what the people of the Philippines did?
Sec. ABRAMS: Well, when Cardinal Obando, who is the most popular figure, came back after a visit which included Rome and the United States, hundreds of thousands of people came out in a form of protest, the only form permitted to them. Remember, when you protested in the Philippines, not much happened to you. When you protest in any communist country, including Nicaragua, your life and your freedom are at risk. It is just not fair to expect the people of Nicaragua to continue to risk their lives if we're not willing to give them the support they need to struggle against this communist government.
LEHRER: Bishop?
Bishop GUMBLETON: As recently as within the last couple of months, Amnesty International has been to Nicaragua again. They have tried to document the kinds of repressive actions that Mr. Abrams is talking about. And Amnesty International says that is not happening on anywhere near the scale that he is suggesting that it is happening. They did document atrocities and acts of terrorism by the contras, but not by the government. That repressive action in October was relaxed in November of last year.
LEHRER: All right, let's take another point that the bishop has raised, Mr. Secretary. He says that the administration lies when you call the contras freedom fighters. They're in no way, they're thugs and terrorists.
Sec. ABRAMS: Well, first of all, when you have a group that's headed by Mr. Calero who was imprisoned by Somoza, Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, who are members of the original Sandinista juntas, it's hard to call them terrorists. Now, I would just ask the bishop that as we go through what is a very significant and important national debate, we try not to call fellow citizens liars. Maybe you're right and maybe I'm right, but I don't call you a liar, and the charge of outright lying does not help the American people cope with this issue very much.
Bishop GUMBLETON: It's very discouraging to me that I have to say it. Two hundred other religious leaders also said it today, and we continue to get others signing our statement. It's a very sad thing that we have to say that our government is lying. And yet, in the documentation which we published today we listed at least 15 separate areas where the facts show clearly our government says one thing, the facts are opposite.
Sec. ABRAMS: You won't even stand up for the Nicaraguan church. It's just shocking to me. I speak, I have to say, as a non-Catholic --
Bishop GUMBLETON: Again, I wish you could only understand --
Sec. ABRAMS: -- but I have talked to members of the church hierarchy there --
Bishop GUMBLETON: No bishop is a church --
Sec. ABRAMS: Several bishops there --
Bishop GUMBLETON: I don't claim to be the church in Detroit. We have 1,500,000 people who are the church in Detroit. Cardinal Obando is not the church.
Sec. ABRAMS: No, he's not the church, Bishop, but the church, as this report shows, and as Americas Watch and every other human rights group has said, is under enormous pressure in Nicaragua, and you haven't said a word to criticize the Sandinistas for the pressure that they're putting the church under. Why won't you stand up for the church in Nicaragua?
Bishop GUMBLETON: I am standing up for the church in Nicaragua, and they are the people who are suffering because of the contras. They are the people who are being killed with the weapons that we are supplying.
LEHRER: Let me ask you --
Bishop GUMBLETON: That's the church of Nicaragua.
LEHRER: Let me ask you a question, Bishop Gumbleton. You just disagree with the leadership of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua about the Sandinista government? The leadership of the church?
Bishop GUMBLETON: The leadership of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is split. They don't all agree with one another. And that's not unusual. The leadership of the Catholic church in the United States is not of a single mind and a single voice. We don't always agree with each other. And the same thing is true in Nicaragua.
Sec. ABRAMS: They're not split on the question of whether there is oppression of the church by the Sandinistas. You still refuse to --
Bishop GUMBLETON: There are bishops, there are --
Sec. ABRAMS: One word! Give me one word. Give me one word about Sandinista pressure on the church, one word of criticism!
Bishop GUMBLETON: Why do I want to give you a word of criticism?
Sec. ABRAMS: Because we're trying to tell the American people what the truth about the Sandinistas is. It's just very discourag -- talk about discouraging, boy.
Bishop GUMBLETON: The difficulty here is that we don't have to depend on only what our government says. We have witnesses who have gone to Nicaragua. There are thousands of people from the United States who have gone down there. We have witnesses down there at this very monment. And we also have the religious communities; the head of the Dominican Order, as an example, staffing parishes throughout that country, has made a public statement within the past year, "We are not being persecuted." Now, those are the people that I know know what's going on, and they're the ones telling us that they're not being persecuted.
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, you had the 200 religious leaders as exemplified here by Bishop Gumbleton. Up 'til now you've had a majority in the House of Representatives that have opposed aid to the contras. Why can't you get them -- if this is such a golden cause, why have you not been able to convince these folks?
Sec. ABRAMS: Well, I think we are convincing them. In fact, Bishop Gumbleton now is in a fairly well isolated position. He's a man who has refused now for the last 10, 20 minutes to say a single word of criticism of the Sandinistas, even of their repression of his church. Now, that is not typical of Congress. The real evolution of congressional views and of the views of Latin American and West European democrats is they now see the Sandinistas for what they are. When we talk to people in Congress there is no debate over who the Sandinistas are and what they're up to. That question has been settled in the mind of Congress. The issue which is being debated now is, okay, what do we do about it? And I'm afraid to say that -- or I am happy to say that the people in Congress have met with and are listening to the Archbishop and bishops of Nicaragua.
LEHRER: Is there anything, Bishop Gumbleton, that Secretary Abrams or the Reagan administration could say to change your position on this? Is this a debate for which there is a possible change of mind?
Bishop GUMBLETON: Well, the one thing that they could do to change my position would be to withdraw the request for aid. Then I would be supportive of them. I am not going to support any kind of further aid to the contras to do further atrocities in Nicaragua. And I am not afraid to criticize the Sandinista government. And they have made mistakes. And they'll probably continue to make mistakes. But they're also willing to admit their mistakes. Today one of our religious leaders was Reverend Norman Bent, a Moravian minister, who was jailed for five days by the government. As he pointed out, though, it was not because of his religion; it was because of his political position. He was released --
LEHRER: All right, gentlemen --
Sec. ABRAMS: Political prisoners are fine, according to the bishops.
Bishop GUMBLETON: -- and he supports the government now.
LEHRER: All right, okay, gentlemen. Bishop Gumbleton, thank you for being with us from Detroit, Secretary Abrams, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Still to come on the NewsHour, special correspondent John Merrow reports on some Texas families fighting to educate their children at home.
This is pledge week on PBS, and we're taking a short break now so that your local television station can ask for your support. That support helps to keep programs like this on the air.
[PBS pledge week intermission]
Homespun Schools
MacNEIL: As we reported earlier, Education Secretary William Bennett joined President Reagan today in releasing a report about what works, as they see it, in public education. The first chapter is labled "Home," and the first sentence in that chapter reads, "Parents are their children's first and most influential teachers." At his news conference the secretary urged parents to take that responsibility seriously.
Sec. BENNETT: The average American mother spends 30 minutes with a child and father -- mother, 15, father, five. That's not enough. That's not good enough. And we have said over and over again that parents are their children's first educators. We certainly want to encourage parents to become involved, to be active in their children's education, and that means look over what's being handed out at school. But there's another side to that, which is the parents must take the responsibility of being their children's first teachers. And the evidence suggests that some parents could do better.
MacNEIL: A growing number of American parents have been taking that message very literally in recent years and have begun to keep their children out of school, to teach them at home. Tonight we have a special report from special correspondent John Merrow about a group of parents in Arlington, Texas. They're so committed to home schooling that they're suing the state government for the right to keep their children out of public school.
WANDA MINKLER, motherfieducator: Who are we going to pray for today?
Ms. MINKLER: You're going to pray for daddy? Okay. Anybody else we need to pray for today? Okay, you want to pray for Grandma and Poppa?
CHILD: Yeah.
Ms. MINKLER: And we probably ought to pray for Shelby Sharpe that God'll give him wisdom.
JOHN MERROW [voice-over]: Shelby Sharpe is not an uncle, not another relative, but an attorney, and the Minkler family is praying that God will give him wisdom so that the Minklers can continue doing what they're doing here, educating their children at home. The public schools do not teach the values they want their children to have.
Ms. WINKLER: Christianity is a lifestyle. You can't be teaching them one thing at home and then eight hours a day they're being taught a different type of lifestyle.
Ms. MERROW [voice-over]: The Minklers represent a new breed of home schoolers aggressively determined to teach their own children. They and eight other families in Texas have filed a class action suit against the state's 1,099 school districts. They're suing because they want the court to declare that their classrooms at home qualify as private schools under Texas law. Their attorney, Shelby Sharpe.
SHELBY SHARPE, attorney: Well, the prime thing that's at stake is that parents have the right to control the education of their children. The state has the right to see that children are educated. But the state has no right to tell parents, "You cannot enroll your child in a private school and receive the education at home."
MERROW [voice-over]: Like all states, Texas requires its children to attend school. What's at issue here is the definition of a school under Texas law. Is a home school a private school? The parents say yes. The state says no. those children are truants, and recommends prosecution.
Mr. SHARPE: The whole purpose of compulsory education was to see that parents educated their children. That was the thrust of it. Here this law is being used against parents who are educating their children.
MERROW [voice-over]: Assistant Attorney General Kevin O'Hanlon is handling the case for the state.
KEVIN O'HANLON, Assistant Attorney General: Home schooling may work. We're not saying that they're prohibited from using it. What we're saying is that in an individual case, demonstrate that it works. Prove that you have a school here and you will not be prosecuted.
MERROW: Parents have to break the law in order to school their kids at home.
Att. Gen. O'HANLON: Well, when you're talking about breaking the law you're talking about what amounts to, for a first violation, a $25 fine. Traffic fines are not -- are higher than that.
MERROW [voice-over]: It's not the fear of a fine that worries these home schoolers as much as the uncertainty of their status, not knowing when the truant officer may knock on their door.
Ms. MINKLER: That threat of prosecution is always hanging over our head. They could take us to court at any time. And we just felt like something needed to be done to clarify the situation. [Giving word and color lesson to children]
MERROW [voice-over]: Calvin and Wanda Minkler plan to educate their four sons at home. Eight-year-old Seth is the only one now of school age. He went to kindergarten in a private Christian school, and while the Minklers were not completely dissatisfied, they saw influences there that they didn't like.
Ms. MINKLER: There was peer pressure. Seth would come home talking about what the other children wore, the type toys that they had, and I thought, "If this is kindergarten, what's he going to be like as he gets older?" [to children] So the angel came to Mary and told her that she was going to have a child. Was she surprised?
CHILD: Yes, it was Jesus.
Ms. MINKLER: Sure, she was surprised because she wasn't married.
MERROW [voice-over]: Home schooling at the Minklers emphasizes moral values. School begins and ends with stories from the Bible. There are prayers at every meal, and no television.
CALVIN MINKLER, fatherfieducator: We're trying to help them establish a love, reverence for God, and knowing that they can go to -- have a personal relationship with God, that they go to God when they have a need.
Att. Gen. O'HANLON: You may be dealing with specific individualized beliefs, but that's not the religious kind of tenet that the Supreme Court was talking about in Yoder. The state doesn't have to bow to any quirky belief that any individual citizen has. That's not what the First Amendment means.
MERROW [voice-over]: Chances of the home schoolers winning on purely religious grounds are slim. The Supreme Court's 1972 decision known as Wisconsin v. Yoder, a case involving the Amish, established very specific religious exceptions to compulsory school attendance, conditions the Texas home schoolers do not meet. And so their attorney, Shelby Sharpe, a home schooler himself, has told the families to downplay religion when talking to reporters.
Mr. SHARPE: The only reason I said that is, don't do something that would encourage it to be put out of balance. We're not trying to low-key it. At the same time we're not trying to make it bigger than what it really is.
MERROW: So it's a conflict, religion versus secular interests in education?
Mr. MINKLER: That's part of it.
MERROW: For you but not for all home schoolers.
Mr. MINKLER: For most home schoolers.
MERROW [voice-over]: The lawsuit is being carefully orchestrated. Remember, parents are suing the state, not the other way around. The plaintiffs include a Mormon family, an hispanic family, two black families, and a family with a handicapped child. Cheryl Leeper's strategy to minimize religion includes designating Gary and Sheryl Leeper chief spokesmen for the home schoolers. Though they are Christians, they don't belong to any organized church, and they say their primary reason for home-schooling Christopher, age 11, and Brandon, age nine, is academic.
CHERYL LEEPER, home schooler: I began home schooling because I felt that my children were not actually learning to read and write. I knew they were not learning their math tables. And I was afraid that if they continued to be passed along as satisfactory students, that they were just going to get farther and farther behind.
MERROW [voice-over]: The Leepers' two older children went to public school and did well, but the Leepers feel that schools have changed, crowded, noisy classrooms and not enough discipline, and so teaching Christopher and Brandon has become Sheryl Leeper's fulltime job.
Ms. LEEPER: What resources do we find in the water? It's not easy to home-school. When a mother takes on the responsibility of home-schooling, she must be very dedicated or she'll have her children back in school within several weeks. It is a big job.
MERROW: I'm going to play devil's advocate for a minute. You're not qualified to teach your children. You're only a high school graduate.
Ms. LEEPER: You're right that I'm a high school graduate. I will disagree with you that I'm not qualified. I do not believe that any teacher, no matter how many years she spends in college, could possibly know my children as well as I do. And if, for example, we have a real problem with math tables, we have tried many different approaches. Finally we have found the one that succeeds. But I have the time and the freedom to search. A teacher could not possibly do this for each individual child.
DONALD WRIGHT, school superintendent: I would say that the parent is the child's best teacher ever. I would also say that there is some things that you can't teach your child as well. Sometimes it's an advantage to have an objective viewpoint of a young person, the problems they're going through, either learning a particular skill or learning something new.
MERROW [voice-over]: Professional educators like Arlington superintendent of schools Donald Wright, believe that schools because of their size are able to provide much more than any home can.
Supt. WRIGHT: We have media centers with approximately 10,000 books in each of our elementary schools. We have computer systems, music, art, all the kinds of things that schools can provide because we have the facilities, we have the people that have the expertise to teach those types of things. But I think that part of education is seeing how different people think and feel about different issues, that anytime you have an opportunity to be in association with others that are unlike you, as well as those that are like you, that that's an advantage and there's an educational process that occurs.
Ms. LEEPER: This is one of the big pluses of home schooling. They are allowed to socialize with children whose moral values we have already -- well, whose parents' moral values we are familiar with and whose values coincide with ours.
GARY LEEPER, father [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] educator: The state would instill in them different values than the parents have, for instance. That creates friction. And therefore, if we allowed our children to go to school, for instance, and pick up these values that the state is trying to teach them, it would destroy the basic family unit.
MERROW [voice-over]: For the parents, values are the core of the issue. Joining the parents in bringing the lawsuit are five companies that stand to make money if they win, companies that provide curricular materials for home schooling, materials that downplay the importance of the teacher.
RONALD JOHNSON, Accelerated Christian Education: We have written our material so that it minimizes a child's dependence on an adult. It's self-instructional, non-graded after he learns to read.
MERROW [voice-over]: Ronald Johnson is vice president of Accelerated Christian Education, Incorporated, in Lewisville, Texas. Materials for home schooling represent a small percentage of ACE sales across the country, but it's the fastest growing part of the business. ACE and other companies supply tests, evaluate the child's progress, and even grant diplomas. [interviewing]You actually have an economic interest in this, though, because you sell the materials.
Mr. JOHNSON: We don't like to think of it that way. We would say our interest is, first, parental rights.
Att. Gen O'HANLON: What the publishers are looking for in this case is a state seal of approval on their materials. That's only a very small fraction of what goes into being a school.
MERROW [voice-over]: Only a small fraction of parents in Texas or anywhere else are actually home-schooling, a few thousand children of Texas' three million school-age children. But the Texas lawsuit is part of a national pattern of aggressive legal activity on behalf of Christian home-schoolers, primarily paid for by the Rutherford Institute of Manassas, Virginia, which says it's a Christian version of the American Civil Liberties Union. The state of Texas is fighting back, hard.
Att. Gen. O'HANLON: In a number of these cases the primary motivation is Anglo parents not wanting their kids to go to school with minorities, a significant problem in a number of these cases. If that catches on, then the school system could turn into a minority-dominated in a short period of time. Let's assume that they do win and that this law is stricken and that you as a parent for whatever reason don't want your child to go to school. All you do is that you evoke one of these publishers or something of that nature, and the school can't touch you.
Mr. SHARPE: Parents as a general rule are going to do the best they can with whatever means they have for their children. Sure, you're going to have a small minority that are not. But you don't wipe out the majority because you have a few people who don't do it right. You just deal with those.
MERROW: You're saying, trust parents?
Mr. SHARPE: Why not? God gave the children to the parents, not the state.
MERROW: What if you lose?
Ms. MINKLER: We would probably move. If they could absolutely refuse to allow us to do any type of home schooling, I'm sure we would leave the state.
MERROW: The home school case will be argued here, in Terrant County Courthouse. Judge Charles Murray will have to decide between the rights of parents who want to teach their children at home and the responsibility of the state to see that all children in Texas go to school. But no matter what the judge decides, the conflict will not be settled here.
LEHRER: The Lurie cartoon tonight takes us back to President Reagan and aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
[Lurie cartoon: Reagan attempts to water the contra flower, but knots in the congressional pipeline keep water back and the flower wilts.]
MacNEIL: Finally, once again, the main stories of the day. Reagan officials pressed the case for aid to Nicaragua's contras while religious leaders accused the administration of lies. The South African government said it would end its state of emergency this week. A Philippines government commission said the Marcos family may have plundered five to 10 billion dollars. And the index of leading economic indicators fell in January. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin. We'll see you tomorrow night. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
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This episode's headline: News Summary; Debating Contra Aid; Homespun Schools. The guests include In Washington: ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Assistant Secretary of State; In Detroit: Bishop THOMAS GUMBLETON, Witness for Peace; Reports from NewsHour Correspondents: MICHAEL BUERK (BBC), in South Africa; JOHN MERROW, in Arlington, Texas. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” 1986-03-04, NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024,
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