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.


In his first speech, Bush offered three proposals. The one that got attention -- because it smells like vouchers and thus is inherently newsworthy -- would overhaul the big Title I program, which is meant to close the learning gap between poor and middle class kids. Never has a federal program more urgently needed an overhaul, and nowhere in education is it easier for Republicans to contrast themselves with the Clinton-Gore administration, whose Title I mantra is "stay the course." Bush focused, in particular, on the scandal of schools that run lousy Title I programs yet continue to get federal dollars. He would give states three years to turn such schools around or -- echoes of brother Jeb's work in Florida -- hand the money to the kids' parents to spend on schools of their choosing.


The second proposal would move Head Start from Health and Human Services to the Education Department and transform it from a child-development program to a reading-and-math readiness program. This, too, is a worthy and overdue change, and Bush seems not to mind being the first Republican in memory to seek to expand the unloved Department of Education. Third and most nebulous among his proposals is an unimpeachable precept -- only effective federal programs should continue -- combined with a redirection of the Education Department's research wing.


The details are worth chewing over, which the education policy hive will inevitably do. Some bits seem to me a little too intricate, others not quite fully developed. The larger point, though, is what these proposals indicate about the kind of "education president" George W. Bush would be: unafraid to make bold changes, even when this means riling vested interests and lassoing sacred cows; willing, even eager, to use federal power and programs as instruments of change, never mind some friction with states and localities; clearly focused on needy kids; single-minded about results rather than inputs or processes; and astute about the dynamics of reform, in particular about the political imperative of siding (compassionately!) with kids and parents rather than institutions and bureaucracies.


That last characteristic is what saves Bush from Clintonism. The White House (and vice president) have a theory of education change that relies, at day's end, on Washington regulators. All their proposals hinge on federal action and enforcement. Bush isn't shy about using federal clout, but not to micromanage class size, pupil promotion policies, and school discipline. He would use it to leverage change via parental choice, school competition, and empowered (and accountable) states, while relying on plentiful data about what does and doesn't work. That may be just the jujitsu needed to turn around our muscle-bound education system.




Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.