Bush Vows New Direction For Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — August 04, 2000 6 min read

In accepting his party’s nomination for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush last night sounded the education themes he has used throughout his campaign to help reshape the Republican Party’s message on the federal role in schools.

Addressing thousands of enthusiastically cheering Republicans at the First Union Center in Philadelphia and before a much wider television audience, Gov. Bush outlined a broad agenda and vision for the direction he hopes to take the party if elected.

“[W]e will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country,” he said. “To every man and woman, a chance to succeed. To every child, a chance to learn. To every family, a chance to live with dignity and hope.”

On education, Gov. Bush lamented that many students in high-poverty schools are not learning, and criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for not taking steps to solve the problem. “This generation was given the gift of the best education in American history. Yet we do not share that gift with everyone,” he said, noting the substantial proportion of 4th-graders in high-poverty schools who cannot read.

“And still this administration continues on the same old path with the same old programs while millions are trapped in schools where violence is common and learning is rare,” Gov. Bush told the partisan crowd. The governor said he would emphasize local control and accountability for schools if elected president and set a different course to help students. “This administration had its chance. They have not led. We will,” he said.

While education did not dominate the governor’s speech, which touched on a wide range of issues, the topic was brought up again and again this week. The first day of the four-day convention, in fact, featured the theme “leave no child behind.” Many Republicans noted a contrast with the GOP convention of four years ago, when the party’s platform endorsed abolishing the U.S. Department of Education.

But while Gov. Bush has supported keeping the Education Department—albeit with a more flexible approach to funding for schools—some critics say the GOP’s ideas still fall short. Today, in an interview, a spokesman for Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, criticized both Gov. Bush’s speech and his agenda.

“The governor’s speech was short on substance and short on real ideas with regard to education,” said Gore spokesman Dagoberto Vega. “There’s no plan to recruit needed new teachers or to raise teacher salaries. . . It lacks any focus on school modernization.” He added, “There is no plan for providing universal preschool.” Vice President Gore has put forward an education agenda that would spend $115 billion over 10 years to address these and other issues.

Teacher Views

But Gov. Bush’s message resonated with some teachers who attended the convention as Republican delegates and alternates, even while a few proposals he has put forward—especially support for school vouchers—have provided some cause for concern.

Geraldine Sam, a Republican delegate and kindergarten teacher in the La Marque school district near Houston, said she believes her governor has an agenda that teachers can support.

“Teachers really don’t have anything to fear with Gov. Bush or the Republican Party,” she said in an interview on the convention floor this week. “He’s talking about every child can learn.” She added, “I believe that teachers should be accountable. I believe that schools should be accountable.”

Ms. Sam emphasized that education is an issue the governor has long been involved in. “Education is nothing new to him,” she said, noting that both his children attended public schools in Texas.

Bob Tomlinson, a Kansas alternate to the convention, as well as a state legislator and special education teacher at an alternative public school, said he is pleased with the direction the party appears headed, as well as its presidential nominee.

“I am absolutely thrilled that the Republican Party has taken two steps,” he said. First, he noted that the GOP has made education the centerpiece of the 2000 presidential campaign. And second, “They have chosen to make their proposals positive, rather than trashing teachers’ organizations,” Mr. Tomlinson said.

During his 1996 nomination-acceptance speech, Republican nominee U.S. Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas singled out the teachers’ unions for criticism. Mr. Tomlinson and other teachers interviewed for this story belong to the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association. Forty-two NEA members were delegates or alternates to the Republican convention this year. (The NEA leadership has endorsed Vice President Gore in this year’s race.)

Despite his enthusiasm for the GOP’s focus this year, however, Mr. Tomlinson said he did not back Gov. Bush’s proposal to give students in chronically failing schools publicly funded vouchers to attend the public or private school of their choice.

“For me, vouchers are unacceptable,” he said. “I work with special needs children” and fear that some special-needs students might be excluded from schools that accept vouchers, he said.

Conservative Concerns

The presidential nominee’s emphasis on helping children was also good news to U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families.

“If one listened carefully to the [acceptance] speech, he wove children into virtually every story that he told,” Rep. Castle said. “He showed for perhaps the first time in recent Republican candidates a strong inclination to try to help with children who have problems.” He added, “I think his speech, combined with his record, gives him a good jump start in terms of education as an issue in this campaign.”

But Rep. Castle, a moderate Republican, cautioned that Gov. Bush’s agenda could be hard for some conservative lawmakers to embrace.

“You’ve got guys in the House of Representatives who wanted to get rid of the federal Department of Education so you better believe that it’s going to be tough for them to think that the federal government is going to get involved in helping kids,” Rep. Castle said.

Betty Anderson, a Republican alternate from Spring, Texas, near Houston, said this week that, while she still has not examined Gov. Bush’s education agenda closely, she has faith in him. “I believe he wants education to work for all children.” At the same time, she said she has not supported all Gov. Bush’s actions in Texas. “He has made some state school board appointments that I’m not happy with,” she said. “Some of his appointments are not as conservative as I would have thought they would be.”

Cheryl Williams, a delegate from Oklahoma who served on the platform committee, said she is not pleased with the final party platform. During the committee’s deliberations, she sought to restore the language from 1996 that advocated eliminating the Department of Education.

“The federal government does not have the authority to be in our classrooms,” she said this week on the convention floor. “The ultimate goal of our party has been, since the time of Lincoln, less government.” She added, “Even Dick Cheney did not want to create the Department of Education.”

Indeed, Democrats have been quick to flag Mr. Cheney’s votes against creating the department in 1979, as well as his votes against the Head Start program and supporting spending cuts in education, during his 10 years in Congress. The vice presidential nominee, who delivered his acceptance speech Wednesday night, represented Wyoming in the House from 1979 to 1989 before being named secretary of defense in Gov. Bush’s father’s presidential administration.

Ms. Williams said she agrees with Gov. Bush’s goals when it comes to education matters, such as supporting reading, charter schools, and vouchers, but is worried about how he would accomplish them.

“I just don’t think the federal government should be doing it,” she said.