The Magazine

A Real Education President

With his school-reform plan, George W. Bush embraces a federal role and looks ahead to the general election

Sep 20, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 01 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Before George W. Bush delivered his first big education address, his team briefed conservative education policy experts on what the speech would contain. At these briefings and throughout the following couple of weeks, three things have stood out about Bush's strategy.

First, the Bush campaign is already shifting into general-election mode. The care they took with their education policy package, the number of advisers they drew upon (and, for the most part, heeded), and the sophistication of the rollout resembled a full-blown White House unveiling. The staging was classy, too: a Hispanic audience in education-crazed (and vote-rich) California; a well-rehearsed talk, delivered partly in Spanish, covered live on national TV; all this combined with the requisite school visits and photo ops.

Second, the Bush campaign -- again pursuing a general-election strategy -- is reaching for the political middle. In his speech, Bush went straight for a topic that most Republican office-seekers find awkward: the appropriate federal role in education. Many who vote in GOP primaries, of course, don't think Washington should play any role in education, while the general electorate rewards candidates who assign a powerful role to Washington. Bush has now embraced an education policy that, indeed, gives Washington a powerful role to play. Which is surely why his campaign staff took such pains to brief potential critics on the right -- a tactic that worked. But for some carping about Bush sounding "Clintonesque," most complaints have come from the left.

Third, Bush's overall education reform plan is impressive. The extensive fact sheet that accompanied the speech ("Education Policy of George W. Bush, Part I") contains a five-point "philosophy of reform" that sets forth the essential elements of school reform as well as I've ever seen. The first three of these create a structure of standards, tests, and accountability; the fourth offers freedom to individual schools; and the fifth insists on "competition" and the "power of parental choice" as "essential" to "raising standards and creating accountability."

Those five bullets also embody what Bush has been doing in Texas with fair success. He's not just giving voice to think-tank nostrums and focus-group pleasers never before tried in the real world. His track record in the Lone Star state includes a solid performance in turning around K-12 education. (None of the other remaining GOP candidates can make such a claim. Neither can Al Gore or Bill Bradley.) Education is meant to be one of Bush's singular assets, and he and his troops are treating it that way.

It's a solid record, but not perfect. Texas has lots of charter schools but not publicly funded vouchers. Governor-watchers say Bush hasn't pushed the Texas legislature very hard, unlike his brother who successfully fought the Florida legislature to pass a statewide voucher program for children otherwise stuck in awful schools. Texas has good academic standards and a formidable testing program, but critics say the tests aren't hard enough and that too many handicapped and limited-English youngsters don't take them. The state has a worthy, phonics-based, early-reading program, but is squishy on bilingual education. And so forth. It's also worth bearing in mind that Texas is one of the few places where teachers' unions don't dictate education policy. The unions don't amount to much politically. Which makes it easier for a governor to build a record of education reform.

Still, our best objective gauge of student achievement shows real progress in Texas. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students' average scores in core subjects have gone up, and, perhaps most notably, minority youngsters are moving toward the front of the line. (Rumor has it that some soon-to-be-released NAEP results will add to this evidence.)

Disadvantaged kids and federal policy were the main thrust of Bush's recent speech, the first of three on education. The second is said to deal with school safety and discipline, the third more explicitly with choice and competition. Bush's timing is shrewd. Right now, Congress is returning from recess to see whether it can make any progress in reforming the moribund Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the topic is also on many governors' minds. But, most important, federal education policy is one spot where Gore is making headway with voters.