Laura Bush: A Teacher in The (White) House
It was only a laugh line, a bit of drollery designed to stoke up the crowd at the expense of the opposition. But Laura Welch Bush's jab at Vice President Al Gore in her keynote speech at the Republican National Convention last year likewise carried the unstated message that the GOP was staking a claim on a mainstay Democratic issue: education.
Mr. Gore, she noted, had made much of his practice of spending the night at teachers' houses when he was out visiting schools on campaign stops.
"Well," Mrs. Bush said in her unmistakable West Texas twang, "George spends every night with a teacher."
As the Bush administration's resident educator, the 54-year- old first lady is her husband's best argument that his often-stated commitment to education comes from an authentic and personal place, rather than from mere political calculation. Mrs. Bush has pledged to make education a top East Wing priority. And now she's working to deliver.
In addition to her efforts to promote literacy and early-childhood education, she's talking about ways to improve teaching conditions and alleviate teacher shortages. This fall, she'll even revisit her former profession, teaching an elementary school class for a day to help publicize the need to recruit new candidates to the field.
In an interview with Education Week late last month, the first lady downplayed any sort of pillow-talk role in crafting federal education policy. But the former elementary school teacher and librarian said she still relishes the opportunity to read to elementary classes.
"I feel very comfortable in schools, and I like to visit schools a lot," she said during the July 26 session. "I haven't had that much of a role in the actual creating of actual policy. But all my life I've worked on issues that have to do with education."
Though still weary from the trip to Europe she and President Bush had just completed, Mrs. Bush was calm, confident, and not at all soft-spoken as she discussed her agenda shortly before another important speech—this time at an early-childhood conference she hosted at Georgetown University here.
It's through such events and related activities that she feels she can have an impact.
In her first six months as first lady, she's published a guide to help parents identify good reading programs in schools. She's urged retiring military personnel to consider teaching as part of the federal Troops to Teachers program. Last week, she announced plans to host a national book festival in September—an event similar to the weekend festival she helped found as Texas' first lady—and to establish a foundation bearing her name to give grants to school libraries for books.
Anthony J. Eksteroricz, a political science professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., noted that Mrs. Bush appears to be sticking with an issue she knows best as she figures out her role in Washington.
"What we're seeing is that she's staying within education, but expanding," said Mr. Eksteroricz, who is a co-editor of The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies, which will be released early next year. "When she came in, she was talking about literacy. Then we saw it expand to Head Start. Now we're seeing it expand a little further to teacher recruitment."
The differences between Mrs. Bush's style and that of her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the lawyer and now senator who sought to overhaul the health-care system for her husband, have been exhaustively examined. Mrs. Bush says she doesn't want to have a heavy hand in crafting policy and, as proof, moved the first lady's office from the West Wing of the White House back to the East Wing, traditional preserve of presidential wives.
In a recent speech to librarians in Texas, Mrs. Bush even made a joking reference to the differences between herself and Mrs. Clinton, vowing that she would never run for the Senate from New York.
But while Mrs. Bush shies away from policy, she and Sen. Clinton have one distinction in common: They are the only two first ladies to hold advanced degrees. Mrs. Bush has a master's in library science from Southern Methodist University. She had worked as a teacher and librarian for a decade before she married Mr. Bush in 1977, but gave up that career shortly afterward.
One of President Bush's top priorities has been an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aimed at stamping it with his "No Child Left Behind" proposals.
His yen to impose more standardized testing and to offer federal vouchers—an idea since dropped from the still-pending legislation—have overshadowed proposals to beef up teacher training and better disseminate reading research to teachers. Pointing to such provisions, two Texans who came to Washington with the new administration say that Mrs. Bush has had an indirect but substantial role in crafting the ESEA proposal.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who co-hosted the recent early-childhood conference, pointed out that she was directly involved in creating the policies in Texas that were the foundation for the president's plan.
"The ideas underlying much of this legislation have been discussed and experimented with for many years before we came to Washington," said Mr. Paige, whose service as Houston's schools superintendent included the years when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas. "What she brings to the table is the view of an experienced veteran, not only as a teacher and librarian, but as a first lady who actively proposed ideas."
Margaret La Montagne, the president's domestic-policy adviser, said her office also would work closely with Mrs. Bush's staff in the coming months to publicize the presidents' education plans and help schools put into effect the new requirements of the ESEA once the reauthorization is enacted.
"Teachers and reading are her primary love ... and those are major components of the ESEA reauthorization," said Ms. La Montagne, a Texan who has been an aide to President Bush since his first days as a candidate for governor. "And this is all very true to some of the things we did in Texas."
In fact, Mrs. Bush in 1998 also hosted an early-childhood summit in Austin similar to the one here at Georgetown. The next year, the Texas legislature approved new spending on Head Start and teacher training, and other recommendations put forth by Mrs. Bush and the conference participants.
President Bush's education plan, reflected in the versions of the ESEA reauthorization passed by the House and the Senate this past spring, would ratchet up testing requirements for students in grades 3-8. That requirement has made many teachers anxious about a loss of instructional time and freedom to lead students in creative directions.
So if she were still in the classroom, Mrs. Bush was asked, would she have similar worries? "Not really," she said.
"I think [testing] forces change," she said. "It's a very, very important part of an education. And it's not punitive, not to punish people. ... Testing is just a diagnostic tool, a way for us and teachers and parents and students to know where their weaknesses are and where their strengths are, and then to know what to do about it."
Mrs. Bush, practiced interview subject that she is, took care to touch the traditional GOP base of state and local control of schools. Some Republicans say Mr. Bush's education policies would subvert that principle. Mrs. Bush was ready with an answer for that as well.
The federal government can do much to improve education, she said, pointing to programs such as Troops to Teachers that, she said, make an impact without being overly bureaucratic.
And while the first lady is popular among Washington education groups, some wish she'd take a stronger, more liberal stand on funding for federal education programs.
The National Education Association, for one, was excited to have a fellow teacher in the White House. Mrs. Bush belonged to its Texas affiliate during her teaching days, said Kathleen Lyons, an NEA spokeswoman in Washington.
But the 2.6 million-member teachers' union has lobbied against parts of the president's education plan because they don't believe it provides enough resources—and they think Mrs. Bush could help make their case.
"We've seen her primarily in a cheerleading role, and she's done a good job focusing attention on the issues," said Ms. Lyons. "It's great rhetoric, but what we need to do is get her husband on board."
Vol. 20, Issue 43, Pages 36, 41Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Laura Bush: A Teacher in The (White) House