June 30, 2000


George W. Bush: the Education President?

by Starita Smith

Texas Gov. George W. Bush is trying a new tack for Republicans: He is claiming a deep commitment to the education of black and Latino young people.

Although his record here in Texas shows that he has worked hard on the complex and intractable issue of improving education for the state's children of color, I don't have faith that he will be a good education president.

Starita Smith

Bush's main idea is "accountability," which basically means that if students don't make high enough test scores on the old-fashioned basics of readin', writin' and `ritmetic, the school they attend gets penalized. The penalty usually comes in the form of branding the school as substandard, but sometimes a loss of funding is also imposed.

There is some evidence that accountability works. In Texas —where roughly 70 percent of schoolchildren are Latino or African American— scores are going up, especially in some of the poorest schools.

Yet it is the way Bush proposed to implement accountability on the national level that raises my eyebrows.

Bush would use Title 1, the federal program that provides badly needed aid to schools with large numbers of kids from poor families, as his enforcement stick. If student scores in these already imperiled schools don't improve satisfactorily, Bush would take some of the school's Title 1 money and use it for vouchers so students can leave to attend private schools.

His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has already tried the idea in Pensacola, but a judge deciding a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and several other groups recently struck the plan down, saying the governor's idea contradicted a Florida state law that requires full support of public schools.

I dislike the Bush brothers' approach.

First of all, many educators in Texas say our accountability system forces teachers to "teach to the test." It is disturbing to visit minority school after minority school, as I have, and see the whole population of students and teachers focused on getting good test scores, almost to the exclusion of anything else. With some exceptions on campuses with especially committed staffs, parents and corporate sponsors, students who come out of these schools still can't identify a piece of classical music, don't know art, have scant knowledge of computers and the Internet —a must in today's world— and see science as a mystery.

When I visit schools in better-off areas, the state skills tests are seen as important, but they are only one piece in the mosaic that makes up a good education for those kids.

The difference is too crucial to ignore. Education should be about wiping out such disparities rather than exacerbating them through punitive public policy.

Secondly, by taking away Title 1 funds, Bush would be undermining the goal of public education on a national level. And he could be chipping away at the wall between church and state if he promoted vouchers for parochial schools.

Unfortunately, Vice President Al Gore isn't offering much better proposals himself. I hope that in the process of the campaign, each candidate will come up with proposals that will substantively improve education. Our children deserve nothing less.

Starita Smith is a writer and editor based in Texas. She has worked as an award-winning reporter and editor for the Austin American-Statesman, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and the Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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