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Remembering Former First Lady Barbara Bush, an Advocate for Literacy

By Alyson Klein — April 18, 2018 2 min read
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Former first lady Barbara Bush, an advocate for early and adult literacy in the White House and afterward, died Tuesday at the age of 94.

The wife of President George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, and the mother of George W. Bush, the 43rd, as well as of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and of three other children, Bush used the bully pulpit of her office as first lady to advance the issue on the behalf of both for children and their parents.

Back in 1989, as first lady, she started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Over the past 29 years, the Tallahassee-Fla.-based organization has helped provide more than $110 million to create or expand family literacy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the nonprofit’s website. The foundation has supported efforts to help young parents learn to read and write and to earn GEDs. It also bolsters early-childhood education.

Bush wrote a memoir and two books C. Fred’s Story and Millie’s Book, from the perspective of the family dogs. Proceeds from the books supported adult and family literacy programs.

“If everyone could read and write, all the problems I worried about could be solved,” Bush, told USAToday in 2014. “If you can’t read, you can’t do anything.”

A passion for education appears to run in the family. Bush’s husband helped spur the standards-based education redesign movement by holding the only White House summit on education in 1989 in Charlottesville, Va., attended by nearly all the nation’s governors.

As president, her son George W. Bush, signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which required all states to test students annually the first time. And as Florida governor, Jeb Bush helped push to expand choice and teacher accountability.

Bush’s daughter-in-law, former First Lady Laura Bush, a one-time school librarian and teacher, also made literacy a focus of her tenure in the White House. And her grand-daughter, Jenna Bush, taught at a charter school.

Back in the early 1990s, Mrs. Bush also helped champion her husband’s signature education initiative, “America 2000,” the national strategy to move the country toward the six education goals.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has worked closely with Mrs. Bush’s son Jeb at his Foundation for Excellence in Education, had warm words for the former first lady.

“A true advocate for lifelong learning, no one in America has done more to advance the cause of literacy—both for students and for parents—than Barbara Bush,” DeVos in a statement. “She continued this commitment long after her days in the White House, and her work has changed thousands upon thousands of families’ lives for generations by helping them unlock the power of literacy.”

And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as President George H.W. Bush’s education secretary, lauded her championship of adult literacy. “Today our country lost a bright, caring, independent lady, and [my wife] Honey and I lost a good friend,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “Barbara Bush set a wonderful example as wife, mom, first lady, and advocate for adult literacy.”

First lady Barbara Bush reads a story to children at Martha’s Table Day Care Center, a nonprofit center which also feeds the homeless, in 1989 in Washington. --Bob Daugherty/AP-File

Holly Peele, Library Director and The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.