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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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.