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Bush vs. Bush: Two Approaches to K-12 Policy

By Erik W. Robelen — September 20, 2000 7 min read

When Vice President George Bush ran for the White House in 1988, he vowed to become the “education president.” Now, 12 years later, his eldest son is pursuing the same office and is making education a centerpiece of his own campaign.

The parallel invites analysis into how the two Bushes approach education, and how Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee this time around, would follow in his father’s footsteps and where he would likely part company. While it is difficult to overgeneralize, it seems clear that the younger Mr. Bush, if he is elected president in November, would offer a contrast of style and—in some, but not all ways—substance with his father on school issues.

“It’s a question of the kind of experience the two of them had,” said Bruno V. Manno, who was the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for policy and planning under President Bush from 1991 to 1993. “This is an issue [Gov. Bush] sleeps, he eats, he breathes. ... The issue is much more part of his blood in ways it never could have been for his father.”

Two Bushes on Education

“For today’s students, we must make existing schools better and more accountable. For tomorrow’s students, the next generation, we must create a new generation of American schools. For all of us, for the adults who think our school days are over, we’ve got to become a nation of students —recognize learning is a lifelong process.”

—President Bush, April 18, 1991, in
an address to the nation on his America 2000 education strategy.

“The federal government must be humble enough to stay out of the day-to-day operation of local schools, wise enough to give states and school districts more authority and freedom, and strong enough to require proven performance in return.”

—Gov. Bush, Sept. 2, 1999, in a speech to the Latin Business Association in California.

That caveat aside, some observers say the two Bushes share a larger governing philosophy toward education.

“While the details may differ, I would say the principles are similar,” said Roger B. Porter, who served as President Bush’s assistant for economic and domestic policy from 1989 to 1993. Both men, he noted, have emphasized such issues as accountability, flexibility, and school choice.

“The branch never falls far from the tree,” agreed David V. Evans, who served from 1978 to 1996 as the staff director for Democrats on the education subcommittee of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. “I definitely think there is a certain legacy that exists in terms of the attitude” that the federal government should play a role in helping schools, even while Gov. Bush has a “greater receptivity to federal action” in education, he said.

Some say the similarities are a problem. “They both have given a lot of lip service and empty promises, but no vision for improving the public schools,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the National Education Association’s director of government relations. The NEA supports Gov. Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore.

On the campaign trail this year, Gov. Bush has outlined a fairly ambitious array of education proposals—dealing with matters from educational technology and after-school initiatives to teacher training and help for charter schools—with a price tag that at last count totaled nearly $50 billion over 10 years.

Among the items that have attracted the most attention: a five-year, $5 billion reading initiative; a plan to offer federally financed vouchers to students in persistently failing public schools; and the governor’s overall emphasis on strict accountability demands, including required state testing in grades 3-8 to demonstrate improved student achievement.

Meanwhile, Vice President Gore has proposed spending $115 billion over 10 years on an array of education initiatives, from smaller classes and higher teacher pay to more accountability and school construction. (“Gore Takes Campaign Back to School,” April 19, 2000.)

A New Context

President Bush’s top agenda items for education included working to help set national education goals and standards, developing a voluntary national examination system, providing seed money to create “break the mold” schools, and creating a federally financed voucher program.

But the breadth of Gov. Bush’s campaign agenda, and his embrace of an active federal role in education—especially the accountability demands he would impose on states and districts in return for flexibility—exceeds his father’s policy goals, many education analysts say.

Like his son, though, President Bush never talked about eliminating the Department of Education, unlike some members of their party. In 1996, for instance, the Republican Party platform supported the idea.

Father and son also have both favored publicly financed school vouchers, though in notably different ways. President Bush proposed the “GI Bill for Kids,” a $500 million proposal to provide $1,000 vouchers for middle- and low-income families. But he never succeeded in persuading a Democratic-controlled Congress to go along with the idea.

The Texas governor, meanwhile, has introduced vouchers into his campaign in a more targeted way, tied to failing schools. Under the governor’s plan, if a failing school that received federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students did not turn around after three years, its students’ families could receive a portion of the school’s federal funding in the form of vouchers to use at another school, whether public or private.

Of course, a lot has changed since President Bush left office 71/2 years ago. Federal budget deficits have been replaced by surpluses. And some suggest that the elder Mr. Bush’s successor, President Clinton, has helped to alter the political landscape—one that puts Gov. Bush’s campaign in a vastly different context than the one his father faced a decade ago.

“Clinton has completely marginalized the whole debate about the propriety of the federal government playing a large, energetic role” in schools, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant education secretary during the Reagan administration. He suggested that the big question facing today’s candidates is not whether to spend federal dollars on education, but “how best to spend [federal] money and how best to structure those programs.”

Different Legacies

Some argue that President Bush did not focus enough attention on schools to win support for his top legislative proposals.

“It wasn’t my experience that he was putting a lot of political capital into education,” said Andrew J. Hartman, who was the staff director for Republicans on the House education committee throughout President Bush’s tenure.

By nearly all accounts, President Bush’s most significant contribution to education involved the summit he convened in 1989 with the nation’s governors that led to the establishment of national education goals. Arguably, the summit—in which Mr. Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, was a major player—influenced governors and other policymakers nationwide.

“The [Bush] legacy would be in promoting the concept of national goals and standards,” said Christopher T. Cross, who served as an assistant education secretary from 1989 to 1991. “That was in fact a key event.”

“One has to give him credit for meeting with the governors . . . and setting a process at the national level that helped bring standards,” said William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland’s school of public affairs and former aide to President Clinton who is advising the Gore campaign on education. “But his actual legislative legacy is pretty hard to discern.”

Today, Gov. Bush is asking voters to judge him on concrete actions affecting the Texas schools.

“It appears to me that . . . this policy [agenda] has evolved from his own thinking and his own experience in Texas,” said Sandy Kress, a Dallas lawyer who is advising the governor’s campaign.

During his nearly six years as governor, Mr. Bush has worked to build on the state’s aggressive efforts to improve education and has embraced standards, testing, and accountability demands. He pushed legislation aimed at helping Texas students learn to read by the 3rd grade and worked with the legislature on a bill to end the promotion of students who were not academically ready to advance to the next grade. Overall, the governor is known for his hands-on style toward education in Texas, although some critics charge that he has taken credit for K-12 gains that were fostered or initiated by his predecessors.

Mr. Kress suggested that the heavy emphasis Gov. Bush has placed on education in the Lone Star State would carry over into a presidential administration.

“He would throw himself into it personally, as a priority of his as president,” Mr. Kress asserted.

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