Bush Warns Against the ‘Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations’

September 22, 1999 5 min read
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Following are excerpts from Assistant Editor Robert C. Johnston’s Sept. 9 interview with Gov. George W. Bush about the governor’s education record in Texas and his presidential campaign.

Gov. George W. Bush

Q. A lot has been written about the “Texas miracle” in reference to education reform in Texas. Is there a Texas miracle? What is it?

A. I think there’s a mission to leave no child behind. ... The reason we’re doing well is because we’ve got the ingredients of a strategy in place, and we are implementing it. A few goals that are measurable. High standards or high expectations. A strong accountability system. Trusting local people to make decisions. And a menu of options available for parents.

Q. Are you satisfied with the rigor of your new curriculum standards? Some members of your party question their rigorousness.

A. I think we ought to give them a chance to work. They haven’t even been transferred from paper to textbook yet. As importantly as the rigors of the curriculum, we are increasing the rigors of our accountability system.

Q. What has been the impact of charter schools in Texas?

A. I’ll give you just one example: KIPP Academy. It is a charter school, the enrollment of which is so-called disadvantaged children. And it is the top scorer in [Houston]. It’s amazing what it says. It says we’re taking a little different approach to education, and it’s working. It serves as a beacon. It’s a catalyst to change, hopefully.

Q. Are you concerned about some of the financial problems that some charters have had?

A. Of course, but that’s not many. It’s a new movement. There’s a vibrancy. Any time you try something different, there will be some downside.

Q. Much of the current system was in place when you were elected. What have you done to improve or augment it?

A. Actually, it wasn’t. There were over 30 goals prior to me being elected governor [in 1994]. There were so many goals, there were no goals. There was a very strong centralized system in Texas where people had to get waiver after waiver after waiver to implement change at the local level. The accountability was in place. There are now more students taking [tests], fewer waivers, higher standards. There were no charters. No menu of options. My only point is that the only thing in place was an accountability system. Period.

Q. You championed a law to link promotion to state exams in grades 3, 5, and 8. Research suggests retaining students increases the chance they will drop out later. Will this happen in Texas?

A. There’s also research that says if a child can’t read by 3rd grade, it’s likely the child won’t read by the 8th grade, and it’s likely the child won’t read at all. Annually, 38,000 children failed the 3rd grade reading test. And guess what happened to them: They went right to the 4th grade. ... Here’s what we’ve done. It’s not just stopping people in their tracks. That’s what’s important to know. This program starts with students in kindergarten this year. We diagnose their reading. ... We are declaring an all-out assault early on against illiteracy in a child’s school career so that by 3rd grade, the 38,000 will have dropped significantly because we said early, “We are warning you we want you to prepare the children.” We are saying every child matters.

Q. A lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to trial this month. It claims that the state’s 10th grade exit exam discriminates against minorities. How do you respond?

A. My response is that in order that every child learns and none gets left behind, we must measure. You can’t fix unless you measure. I strongly disagree [with the lawsuit]. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. And low expectations means don’t measure. Let’s just hope it happens. Let’s hope they are learning. We are saying, we want to know. This is going to be a cornerstone of my presidential campaign. I want to know. I want to know.

Q. In your campaign, you propose diverting federal Title I aid from schools to students’ parents if the schools fail to improve on state tests. Is there anything this punitive toward Texas schools?

A. You misunderstand. It’s not punitive. You are coming from the mind-set that we are punishing. We are saving children. It’s not punitive to schools. It’s helpful to schools to be reminded that there’s going to be accountability.

Q. Many observers in Texas say that your legacy as governor will be tied to literacy. Do you agree?

A. I hope so. I was in a Bedford, New Hampshire, school recently that had a quilt of presidents. Every president had a symbol. The students said, what would yours be? I said if I should ever be so fortunate to become president, I would like to have a book. I can’t think of a better legacy, frankly.

Q. Is it true that your twin teenage daughters attend a public high school here in Austin?

A. Yes. They go to high school in Austin. They spent three years in private school and the rest in public.

Q. Has that experience shaped your policy?

A. Recently, I went to [their] school ... I had the chance to thank [teachers] for teaching. I realized there are some fabulous folks teaching. A lot of time in politics the debate gets roiled up in union this and union that. But people like me understand that there are thousands of incredibly decent people who are working their heart out to provide a good education.

Q. Some voucher supporters here say you could have pushed harder for vouchers...

A. I get blamed for all kinds of things. I pushed too hard. I didn’t push hard enough. Yeah, I’ve heard that. All I can tell you is that I’m the first governor who put them in the State of the State [Address]. I campaigned on it. Worked hard to get it done. But it required 21 votes in the Senate. They couldn’t get it up. It didn’t matter how hard I pushed, the votes weren’t there.

Q. What’s the difference between “education governor” and “education president”?

A. Obviously, a president, like a governor, has an opportunity to highlight education successes and blow the whistle on failure. The precarious ground for someone running for president is that, as president, you must not undermine local control of schools. That’s what’s important.


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