Reading, Writing, And George W. Bush

Is the Texas governor's record on education really that good? In short, yes

Once there was a Republican who promised to be "the Education President." After a fitful experiment with national goal-setting, he shifted to other priorities and was expelled after a single term in office.

Now, another prominent GOP pol is making public education his top priority. He's streamlining his state's education bureaucracy, returning power to local school districts, stiffening standards, and demanding more accountability. His efforts have vaulted him to national prominence and helped spark talk of a run for the White House.

If education was a dead end for his dad, it's proving to be a bonanza for Texas Governor George W. Bush. The younger Bush has embarked on an ambitious program to move Texas from a state in which 42,000 third-graders couldn't read in 1997--and 38,000 of them were promoted anyway--to one in which every third-grader will be reading by 2002. Unlike Washington conservatives, Bush isn't bashing teachers' unions and school bureaucrats. He has committed billions in new spending to turn Texas into a national pacesetter, and with a $3 billion budget surplus this year, he doesn't have to play Scrooge to pay the bills.

In Texas, Bush has been "a lifesaver for school reform," says Sandy Kress, ex-president of Dallas' school board and a onetime Democratic county chair. Adds Chester E. Finn Jr. of the conservative Manhattan Institute: "Texas probably leads the country at the moment in setting academic standards, testing, and accountability."

On a national level, the success of Bush's education initiatives is crucial to recasting the Republican Party in his "compassionate conservative" image. Just as Bill Clinton co-opted the GOP issues of welfare, crime, and deficit reduction in 1992, George W. is intent on seizing education from the Democrats.

BIG TENT. Bush's conciliatory approach has endeared him to many Democrats--and even to some teachers' union leaders. "He has done an outstanding job," says state Representative Paul Sadler, Democratic chair of the Public Education Committee. "I'm sure he wouldn't like me saying this," adds Texas Federation of Teachers President John Cole, "but he is a Texas Democrat." Says Bush: "I unite people as a management style. If you divide people into groups and pit one group against another to achieve educational excellence, it's inevitably going to fail."

But Bush's big-tent approach has made enemies on his party's right. Conservative critics accuse him of selling out to the education bureaucracy and secular humanists. "His approach has been to play it safe and work with Democrats," says ex-Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken.

Hard-liners already have clashed with Bush over his attempts to modernize the state school curriculum and his reversal of a 1994 campaign pledge to eliminate the state education agency's regulatory powers. "He has a mentality that says big government is O.K. as long as we're in control of it," says Stephanie Cecil, top education lobbyist for the Texas Eagle Forum, a group of social conservatives. Bush acknowledges the tension: "All I ask is, judge me on our record of results not on conspiracy theories."

What is that record? When he came to power in 1995, Bush inherited a school system marked by stark inequalities between wealthy and poor districts. Texas lagged behind national averages in pupil achievement and teacher pay despite reforms initiated by Democratic Governors Mark White and Ann W. Richards.

PRIVATE FLOPS. Bush's first major education reform--an overhaul of the state education code--reduced red tape. Under Bush, the Texas Education Agency cut its staff by 27% and erased 55% of state regulations.

Now, the state's accountability system grades more than 6,600 Texas schools annually. Texas rewards schools based on test performance (and improvement), while reserving the right to remove principals and seize control of failing schools. In 1998, six school districts were deemed "academically unacceptable" because of low test scores or high dropout rates. The Texas Education Agency intervened in two Dallas and San Antonio area districts during Bush's first term but restored local control after the schools made gains.

Some of Bush's other innovations haven't been as successful. Privately run charter schools have had mixed results despite strong support from business, which has anted up $4 million to help fund them. Says one top Bush adviser: "Some entrepreneurs, while well-intentioned, haven't honed their management abilities."

But the bottom line for Bush is student achievement. Already, test results are better. Texas and North Carolina have shown the greatest improvement in national test results of any states in the country since 1992, according to a 1998 study issued by the National Education Goals Panel. Bush boasts that every ethnic group improved in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests--and minority students showed the greatest gains.

LONG HAUL. Despite these successes and $10 billion in state spending on education in 1997-98 alone, Texas remains in the middle of the pack in national tests. Teacher salaries and per-pupil expenses are still below the national average. And some 25% of Texas teachers aren't certified in the subject they're teaching. "We're pleased with the progress but not satisfied with where we are," says John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business & Education Coalition.

Furthermore, the tests remain a lightning rod for criticism. A study commissioned by the Tax Research Assn., a Houston watchdog group, concluded that TAAS tests have been made easier in recent years. Hispanic activists argue that standardized tests discriminate against Latinos.

Bush is undeterred by the protests. In his 1999 State of the State address, he asked for an additional $1 billion over two years for local school districts. The centerpiece: a ban on social promotions and more remedial aid for failing students. And just a day after his education bill breezed through the state senate on Feb. 18, the governor was musing about a future project. "I anticipate virtual-reality reading laboratories where a child will interface with a voice-activated computer system," he told BUSINESS WEEK in a Feb. 19 interview. He also dreams of virtual-reality school districts and laptops for every pupil.

Certainly, Bush will have to make good on his ambitions before his Texas successes translate into a compelling national platform. But right now, dreams may be enough for a party longing for both "the vision thing" and strong leadership.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.