The ‘Education President’ at Midterm: Mismatch Between Rhetoric, Results?

By Lynn Olson & Julie A. Miller — January 09, 1991 16 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

During the 1988 campaign, candidate George Bush told a group of students: “I want to be the education President. I want to lead a renaissance of quality in our schools.”

But midway through his tenure, the self-proclaimed education leader has proved, in the minds of most education observers, to be more shadow than substance.

“I would give him a C-minus, maybe a D-plus,” said A. Graham Down, president of the Council for Basic Education. “I mean, he hasn’t really done much except talk, and talk is cheap.”

Among other negative conclusions, critics note that:

Although Mr. Bush and the nation’s governors made history last February when they adopted six national goals for education, the President has provided little leadership or follow-up since.

The President’s first Secretary of Education, Lauro F. Cavazos, was widely viewed as an ineffective advocate for education reform whom Mr. Bush erred in not replacing sooner.

Mr. Bush’s package of education initiatives went down to defeat in the last days of the 101st Congress.

A legislative proposal related to his call for “partial deregulation” of the nation’s schools died with it. The Administration’s plans to introduce its own initiative to free schools from regulation never got off the ground.

The Administration became embroiled last month in a civil-rights debacle when Assistant Secretary of Education Michael L. Williams declared that many scholarships awarded on the basis of race violate federal law: an issue on which Mr. Bush’s stance is still far from clear. (See related story, page 1.)

Traditionally, federal officials have relied on the “bully pulpit” to push for changes in the nation’s schools and universities.

Beyond that, their role is sharply constrained by the limits of the federal budget and the constitutional authority of states for schooling.

Accordingly, Mr. Bush pledged to be a “spokesman and advocate for further public-school improvement.”

During his inauguration, he told a group of teachers: “Education will be on my desk and on my mind right from the start, every day.”

But critics say he has provided little personal leadership. In recent months, the looming threat of a war with Iraq, the federal deficit, and a worsening economy have dominated Mr. Bush’s attention.

“If when the Iraqi crisis is over he can turn to education with the same passion, we’ll get moving,” said Terrel H. Bell, a former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan.

“We need a personal commitment from the President. It needs to be an obsession,” Mr. Bell said. “When the President talks, people listen.”

Mr. Cavazos proved, in the assessment of most education observers, spectacularly unable or unwilling to play the role of educational spokesman.

Almost everyone interviewed characterized his tenure, which ended last month, as a period of silence and inertia. Most said the President delayed too long in firing him.

“Cavazos hurt [President Bush] in this sense: The rarest commodity an Administration has is time,” said Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council and a White House adviser and Education Department official in the Reagan Administration.

“You get four years, and you have to go back and ask for four more,’' Mr. Bauer said. “He lost two years with the ‘stealth secretary.”’

“I don’t think he had the charisma or the presence to be the symbol for educational reform that the situation required,” Mr. Down agreed.

As a result, schooling may have received more visibility under President Reagan and his polemical education appointee, William J. Bennett, than it has under the “education President.”

An analysis of television news coverage between Mr. Bush’s inauguration and December 1989 found that the President’s dog Millie garnered more press attention than did Mr. Cavazos.

“Education as a national issue I don’t think is on the front burner,” said John E. Chubb, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “I would say the acid test for the President over the next two years is whether he is able to raise the profile of the education issue to a point where the public appreciates the importance of it.”

So far, public-opinion polls about Mr. Bush reflect the lukewarm judgments of the education community.

“His ratings on education aren’t as high as his foreign-policy ratings or as low as his ratings on the economy,” said Andrew Kohut, president of Princeton Survey Research Associates.

In March, Mr. Kohut’s group conducted a Times-Mirror survey that asked the public how good a job Mr. Bush was doing in dealing with the country’s long-term education problems. Only 32 percent said he was doing an “excellent” or “good” job; 43 percent rated him “fair"; and 18 percent, “poor.”

When the Gallup Poll asked people last February whether Mr. Bush was making progress in improving educational standards, 48 percent said “yes” and 44 percent said “no.” This fall, those ratings had switched to 42 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

“We’ve asked several different times what is Bush’s most important accomplishment so far, and no one ever mentions education,” said Frank M. Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll.

On the legislative side, Mr. Bush received mixed reviews from observers.

He asked for and received a $500-million increase for Head Start in the current fiscal year. But that still fell far short of his campaign promise to expand the program so it would reach all eligible 4-year-olds.

Similarly, Mr. Bush’s proposed budgetary increase for education in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, $1.23 billion, was the largest increase sought by a President in a decade. But it lagged substantially behind the $2.7 billion eventually approved by the Congress.

During the campaign, Mr. Bush pledged to provide $500 million in cash awards for “merit schools” alone.

“Had he not been so ambitious to start with, we probably would not have gone as far as we went,” Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, ranking minority member on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in defense of Mr. Bush’s budget. “I think he set the stage for us in a very difficult budget year.”

But Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, described Mr. Bush’s legislative program as a set of “fragmented, poorly thought-through initiatives that he never really pushed and never really got behind.”

Most Congressional Democrats and some Republicans offered similar assessments.

The President’s “educational-excellence act” embraced a host of politically popular notions, including emergency anti-drug grants for urban school districts, awards for outstanding schools and teachers, and scholarships for top math and science students.

It also included more controversial programs supporting alternate routes for teachers and magnet schools not related to desegregation.

Mr. Bush had mentioned most of these items during his campaign. He never followed up, however, on a promise to propose a program supporting merit pay for teachers.

While they met with initial hostility from Democrats, many of the Bush proposals eventually found their way into an omnibus education bill that died in the waning hours of the last legislative session.

Democratic aides, in particular, have faulted the Administration for not working hard enough to pass the bill, which was killed by a group of conservative Republican Senators. (See Education Week, Nov. 7, 1990.)

“Most of the observers who worked on that legislation will tell you the White House troops were not there to make it a reality,” one observer said. “It was all lost.”

Mr. Goodling faulted Administration officials, who opposed a provision allowing federal funding of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for declining to help remove roadblocks in the Senate until the 11th hour.

And he said the Administration cannot take much credit for the inclusion of a “deregulation” proposal advanced by Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont.

“The White House wasn’t really pushing on this that I could see,” Mr. Goodling said.

The accomplishment that has earned Mr. Bush the highest praise was his adoption last winter of six national education goals in conjunction with the nation’s governors.

Those goals promise an America with drug-free schools, pupils ready to learn, few dropouts, no illiterates, competent students, and world-class science and math achievement by the year 2000.

Although few think that all of the goals are attainable by the target date, most say they have provided a sense of urgency and direction for the public schools at the federal, state, and local levels.

“If you ask what is different about this Administration’s approach to education,” said Roger B. Porter, the White House’s domestic-policy adviser, “it’s that the President determined if we’re going to move the system of education in the United States and dramatically improve it, we had to engage people at the state and local levels in the process of reform.”

The education summit in Charlottesville, Va., in the fall of 1989 that eventually produced the goals, he added, “was the first step in that process, because it showed the commitment of the President, his Cabinet, and the governors.”

Agreed Mr. Chubb of Brookings: “It’s easy to ridicule the national goals for being pie-in-the-sky objectives with no means to accomplish them, but I think having the goals as targets to keep the public and state officials informed on where we stand is useful. And Iel10lthink the President deserves credit for that.”

Yet critics claim progress on meeting the goals has gotten off to a slow start, in part because Mr. Bush has failed to grasp the opportunity.

“There’s no leadership there at all,” complained Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association. “I mean, there’s been a vacuum since we established the goals in February, an absolute vacuum.”

Michael Cohen, director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education and the former director of education programs for the National Governors’ Association, agreed.

“At the summit, any number of governors said to [the President]: ‘Once you pick up the ball in education, you can’t put it back down again. You’ve got to stick with it,”’ said Mr. Cohen, who was a key player in the goals-setting process. “And he’s not really done that, not in any systematic way.”

“He hasn’t done nearly as much as I think he could to focus public attention on the goals,” Mr. Cohen asserted, “to keep them in front of the American people and to promote that agenda.”

‘The Right Direction’

But Mr. Porter said real progress has been made since the goals were adopted last February.

“Changing our education system is going to take an extended period of time to see dramatic results,” he argued. “But are we more toward a results-oriented system than we4were two years ago? The answer is yes.”

Mr. Porter added: “Is the country more interested and engaged in education than it was two years ago? Yes. Are people more convinced that we’re going to have higher standards and a major restructuring is going to achieve those higher standards? The answer is yes. Is it clear that we have a President who is interested in the subject? Clearly, yes. Are all these things moving us in the right direction? Yes.”

According to Christopher T. Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, the U.S. Education Department has developed a set of milestones and activities around each of the goals that it hopes to carry out this year.

The Administration’s proposed 1992 budget is also expected to include a presentation showing what it is doing in support of each of the goals.

And next month, it plans to release a report on federal efforts to improve math and science education, in particular. “That will be, I think, a very impressive document,” Mr. Cross said.

Others caution, however, that there is still no national strategy for how to get from the United States’ current, less-than-stellar position to that envisioned by the goals.

“There’s nobody that has put together a plan for how we’re going to meet those goals,” Mr. Geiger said.

“The whole thing is dumb. And it’s especially crazy right now, when you read about state after state making budget cuts and taking big chunks of money out of education. Who are we fooling?”

Even Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, chairman of a national panel formed to monitor progress toward the goals, said, “I was never comfortable with the grandiose nature of the proclamation of the goals without more deliverance of substance.”

“I was very concerned that we laid out expectations without the capacity to deliver,” he recalled, “and that is absolutely still true.”

Most observers caution that it is too early to judge the success or failure of the goals-setting endeavor.

In August, the President and the governors agreed to create a National Education Goals Panel to monitor progress between now and the year 2000.

But the initiative got off to a shaky start, when the governors and the White House wound up in a bitter dispute with Democrats in the Congress over their failure to give Congressional leaders voting seats on the panel or to create an independent body through legislation. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Mr. Romer acknowledged that the panel’s relationship with the Congress still needs to be improved.

Moreover, until recently, the panel has operated without money or staff members. Last month, the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement set aside approximately $600,000 to hire five employees and cover operating expenses.

According to a timeline adopted by the panel, the group hopes to hire an executive director and other staff members by the end of the month.

Although the positions are funded through the Education Department, they will report directly to the panel and will be independent of the department.

During its December meeting, the panel also met with representatives from five newly appointed resource groups, composed of national experts, who have been asked to advise it on how to assess and report progress on five of the six goals. (See related story below).

The panel chose not to create an advisory group on reducing the dropout rate because there was enough information already available on how to monitor progress in that area.

Members of the resource groups are expected to make a final report to the panel by mid-February. The first annual report on progress toward meeting the goals is scheduled for release in September.

In an interview last week, Governor Romer said, “I have been fairly aggressive to try to make this panel work and work quickly.”

But he added, “This panel was created without money, without staff. And I flat out took the responsibility and have been carrying it as though we had staff.”

Mr. Romer and two of his aides have been in Washington at least once every two weeks working on issues related to the panel.

Several observers expressed the hope that Mr. Romer’s leadership and that of Lamar Alexander, the newly nominated Secretary of Education, would help to reinvigorate the goals process.

Mr. Cavazos was only minimally involved in the panel’s work, with most of that responsibility falling to Mr. Porter.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa said, “The process is moving forward slower than many of us would like. Hopefully, the new secretary of education can take that on as a major challenge.”

Last month, Mr. Romer said he met with John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, to ask for some assurances about Mr. Alexander’s role.

“I went there with the intention of asking what role Lamar Alexander would play and urging that he play a very strong role,” Governor Romer said. “The answer that I got was that he would play a leading role.”

“I have been desirous of the new Secretary being the lead person,” he added, “because the former Secretary was not, and that led to awkwardness within the Administration, because it didn’t allow or enable the full or effective participation of the Education Department.”

Since his nomination, Mr. Alexander has been almost unanimously hailed as a stellar choice. Members of the political, business, and education communities all expressed the hope that he would help revive Mr. Bush’s role as the “education President.” (See related story, page 1.)

“He brings two things, really,” said Thomas H. Kean, former governor of New Jersey and president of Drew University. “One is a long-term interest in and care about the subject. And second, just the fact that he’s been where the action is. He’s not a bureaucrat. He doesn’t come from the federal structure. He doesn’t even come from the educational bureaucracy. He comes from a governor’s chair. So he knows not only what has to be done but the political difficulties of getting it done.”

“I think he will give the President a highly visible, articulate, effective spokesman,” Mr. Kean continued, “and he will be able to work with the President to develop a continuing agenda.”

But others caution that Mr. Alexander and the President face some stiff challenges.

In particular, they note, Mr. Bush and Mr. Porter must prove willing to give more authority to the Educael10ltion Department. And, they say, Mr. Alexander must be able to rebuild the administrative capacity of an agency that was decimated during the Reagan era.

A recent poll of former government officials rated the Education Department one of the least respected federal agencies.

In addition, observers note, Mr. Bush still needs to come up with an attractive legislative program and a list of bold policy innovations, including proposals on how the federal government plans to support school restructuring.

“They have to have something to say, something very specific, about how to shape up the nation’s schools,” Mr. Bell said.

Most important, they caution, unless Mr. Bush’s educational leadership becomes more imaginative and daring, it will fail to capture the public’s attention.

Jeanne Allen, an education specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Bush’s education policies in the first year and a half were conducted “in an air of prudence, making sure no mistakes were made and no feathers were ruffled.”

“In the last six months,” she added, “the President and his Education Department started getting risky, saying things that were controversial,” including backing a private-school choice plan in Milwaukee.

But others worry that Mr. Bush is venturing into areas where most educators would prefer not to tread. In particular, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has condemned rumors that the Administration may be planning to back a proposal for expanding4choice among private schools through the creation of vouchers or tuition tax credits.

Mr. Bush has been careful to limit his support for choice largely to the public schools.

Whether anything that Mr. Bush and his colleagues do between now and 1992 to advance the cause of education will make a difference at the polls remains far from certain.

“What re-elects Presidents are whether the economy is sound and whether you’re at war or peace,” said Stephen Hess, an expert on Presidential politics at the Brookings Institution. “Quite frankly, all the other terribly important things become marginal.”

But others warn that education has the potential to become an important issue in the next campaign, particularly if the economy is in a recession and people begin to make the connection between the nation’s economic and educational problems.

“I think in the context of other weaknesses, it could be part of a problem in 1992,” Mr. Bauer predicted. “If the Democrats can say he said he wouldn’t raise taxes, and he did; he said he was going to get Saddam out of Kuwait, and he didn’t; and he said our schools will be this good by 1992, and they aren’t, they can start building a pattern of broken promises.”

According to Mr. Kean, all of the “initial steps have been taken” to create a federal education strategy. “The table has been set,” he stated, “and we have to see what goes from here--whether or not the menu is sufficient--before we judge the meal.”

Related Tags:


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: October 11, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: September 27, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: September 20, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education From Our Research Center What's on the Minds of Educators, in Charts
Politics, gender equity, and technology—how teachers and administrators say these issues are affecting the field.
1 min read
Stylized illustration of a pie chart
Traci Daberko for Education Week