Bush Record on Education Defies Labels

By Robert C. Johnston — September 22, 1999 9 min read
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When it comes to education policy, presidential candidate George W. Bush is not easily typecast. The popular, twice-elected Republican governor of Texas has crusaded to improve childhood literacy and increase academic rigor in his state, and he recently signed legislation to raise teacher salaries. What’s more, he and his wife, Laura, send their twin daughters to Austin High School, a racially diverse public school of 2,200 students.

“That speaks a lot for his feelings about public education,” said Tina Juarez, the school’s principal. “He could send them anywhere.”

At the same time, Mr. Bush has called--unsuccessfully--for a publicly funded voucher experiment in Texas, thus flunking a key test of public school advocates who view vouchers with alarm. And the governor has forced legislative standoffs between his promise to cut taxes and efforts to raise school aid.

Today, the school policies of the front-running GOP candidate for president in 2000 are facing national scrutiny. This month, Mr. Bush focused on education in his first major policy address of the campaign. Echoing the same themes of accountability and local control that have been his mantra as governor, his remarks invite a closer look at his record in the Lone Star State.

In an interview with Education Week, Mr. Bush touted his approach to education policy and looked to the future.

“There is a mission here to leave no child behind,” the governor said during the recent interview in his comfortable office full of sports memorabilia in the state Capitol here. “The state sets goals. The state measures, but local folks chart the path to excellence. We base many of our decisions on what works, as opposed to politics.”

Crediting Accountability

Gov. Bush, 53, is alternately described as a powerful leader on education issues in Texas and someone riding on the coattails of his predecessors’ efforts. For his part, Mr. Bush seems confident of the impact he has made.

“There were over 30 [education] goals prior to me being elected governor [in 1994]. There were so many goals, there were no goals,” he said.

Mr. Bush, a Texas-raised businessman and the eldest son of former President George Bush, was sworn in for his first term in 1995 after defeating Democratic incumbent Ann W. Richards.

At the time, Texas had state exams in grades 3-8 and grade 10, and a system to rate schools and school districts. That system is credited with helping raise student performance, especially for minority students, on state and national tests.

The upward trend is significant because the state’s 3.7 million-student system is among the largest and most diverse in the country. Some say that the Texas model of linking school ratings to test scores of racial and ethnic groups forces schools to focus on minority achievement. Since 1994, Mr. Bush recently told a Hispanic business group, “the number of minority children passing our state skills test jumped from 38 percent to 69 percent.”

Observers note, however, that the seeds for improvement were planted as early as 1984, when businessman Ross Perot (himself a presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996) led Texas’ efforts to cap K-4 class sizes at 22 and bar failing students from playing school sports.

“There’s something real that happened there, but it’s the product of a long-sustained reform effort,” said Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard University who has studied the state’s school improvement efforts. “If any credit is due, it’s to a long succession of governors.”

Still, the new governor could have become an obstacle.

“To his credit, he didn’t screw things up, and that’s significant,” said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “One of the first things some governors do is try to throw out the good with the bad.”

Mr. Bush also jumped aboard an effort to cut red tape for schools that resulted in a complete rewrite of the state’s cumbersome education code in 1995.

“Governor Bush’s greatest contribution to the rewrite was his attitude and the significance he put on it,” said state Rep. Paul Sadler, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee. “It was a team effort in trying to do something that few people thought we could do in 140 days.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said such compliments might be generous. "[Mr. Bush] seems good about finding a parade and leading the way,” she said. “He does have an interest in education, but the legislature sets the agenda.”

The governor hasn’t always backed winning efforts, though.

Despite an early pledge to raise the state share of school spending to 60 percent, he managed to move that statistic about 8 percentage points from where it was when he took office, to about 49 percent today.

He also failed to get a pilot voucher program passed for students in low-achieving schools. Such a win would have been a nice feather in his cowboy hat going into the Republican presidential primaries.

This year, the governor wanted $2.6 billion in tax cuts, even though it threatened to upend a plan to pay for all-day kindergarten for all Texas children. Mr. Bush and lawmakers were at an impasse. In the end, with a $6 billion state surplus, the governor got about $2 billion in tax cuts and the kindergarten spending was approved. The budget also featured $3,000-a-year raises for school teachers, librarians, nurses, and counselors, which Mr. Bush backed.

Reading and Retention

The governor is perhaps most often credited with efforts to back up his 1996 challenge to have all Texas students reading by 3rd grade.

Against the warnings of leery Republicans who feared federal intrusion in schools, he sought federal Goals 2000 money to pay for his Academics 2000 reading and mathematics initiative. He won some converts by lobbying to become an “Ed-Flex” state, which gave Texas waivers from most of the federal rules on spending Goals 2000 aid.

The state has since awarded 357 local grants worth a total of $91 million.

Following up on a pledge in his overwhelmingly successful 1998 re-election campaign, Mr. Bush backed a state law this year designed to end automatic promotions of students to the next grade before they perform at grade level. That policy to end what is known as social promotion included $200 million to help teachers learn to identify and help struggling students.

This past summer, 85 percent, or 18,000, of the state’s kindergarten teachers received $600 stipends to attend four-day seminars on reading instruction. First grade teachers will be the recipients next summer.

Some criticize the Texas statute on social promotion for using the 3rd grade state test as the key to advancing to 4th grade, beginning in 2003.

“His overemphasis on the use of standardized tests has had a negative effect on minority students and is likely to have more in the future,” contended Al Kauffman, the San Antonio-based regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The organization is suing to overturn the state’s 10th grade exit exam, arguing that it discriminates against minority students, who fail at higher rates than their white counterparts.

And state officials have uncovered a rash of alleged cheating incidents in schools on the high-pressure tests.

In the interview, Mr. Bush strongly disputed arguments against high-stakes testing.

“I like the line that Bush’s program will have people shaving in 3rd grade,” he quipped. “You see how pessimistic that is, don’t you? It’s much easier to give up on a child than to have high expectations.”

Skirting Trouble

Others in Texas, meanwhile, say Mr. Bush has relied on pragmatism to dance deftly around such nettlesome issues as bilingual education and phonics-only reading instruction.

Mr. Cole of the teachers’ federation put it this way: “He aims for the middle of the political spectrum and muscles off the extreme right and left.”

The governor dealt with bilingual education by declaring it a local issue. In contrast, a prominent fellow Republican, then-Gov. Pete Wilson of California, rallied behind a successful 1998 voter initiative that ended most bilingual classes in his state.

"[Mr. Bush] said we don’t have the information to say what is the best way for students to learn English,” said Sharon Vaughn, the director of the Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. “You must make the decision how to do it.”

Gov. Bush’s appointments have also tended to lean toward the political center.

Mike Moses, a former Lubbock, Texas, superintendent who was his first appointment as state education commissioner, worked well with traditional school groups--prompting charges from some Republicans that the schools chief was too cozy with the status quo.

This month, Mr. Bush’s new commissioner, James E. Nelson, a former president of the Texas Association of School Boards, refused to take a public stand on vouchers.

And in 1995, the governor picked Houston chiropractor Jack Christie to head the state board of education over other, more conservative Republican board members.

During a 1995 interview about the appointment, Mr. Christie recalled that the governor asked him whether he was a “phonics-only person.” Mr. Christie said he replied that he “wasn’t phonics-only or whole-language-only. That was more [the governor’s] thinking. ... He was getting a feel for what kind of person I was. He needed a team builder and a peacemaker.”

Mr. Christie’s strained relationship with conservative board members came to a head during the 1997 revision of the state’s curriculum standards. When the first draft came out, Mr. Bush labeled them “mush” and sent them back for more changes. The governor and Mr. Christie backed the revised plan in spite of a back-to- basics alternative pushed by the conservative bloc. The issue remains a sticking point.

“We have fuzzy instructional policies that have an adverse effect on students,” said Chris Patterson, the director of the Center for Education at the Lone Star Foundation, a San Antonio-based group that analyzes Texas politics.

Reality Check

For all of the attention that Texas has received for its achievement gains, however, the state has a long way to go. For example, students continue to struggle on state end-of-course exams designed to measure learning in specific curriculum areas.

Last spring, just 45 percent of students who took the Algebra 1 exam passed, although that was an increase of 18 percentage points over 1996.

State officials estimate that, based on the most recent data, about 9 percent of students drop out between the 7th and 12th grades. But the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio estimates that up to 43 percent of students who entered 9th grade in 1994 had failed to graduate by 1998.

Texas SAT scores have also remained essentially flat over the past five years and just below the national average.

While the numbers may paint a mixed picture of student achievement, the governor’s efforts have made an impression on Orentha Harris--a junior at Travis High School in Austin who could easily provide a sound bite for the Bush campaign.

Asked by a reporter recently what came to mind when asked about Gov. Bush and education, the receiver on the varsity football team had no trouble responding. “Higher standards,” he said. “You have to make the grades, and it’s getting harder.”

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