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Event Transcript
October 5, 1999


The Future of Educational Reform

Governor George W. Bush “A Culture of Achievement”

Note: Governor frequently deviates from text

It is an honor to be here — and especially to share this podium with Rev. Flake. Your influence in this city — as a voice for change and a witness to Christian hope — is only greater since you returned full-time to the Allen AME Church. I read somewhere that you still call Houston your hometown, 30 years after you moved away. As governor of Texas, let me return the complement.

We are proud of all you have accomplished, and honored to call you one of our own. It's been a pleasure touring New York these past few days with Governor Pataki. Everywhere I've gone, New York's old confidence is back — thanks, in large part, to a state senator who challenged the status quo six years ago. From tax cuts to criminal justice reform to charters, your agenda has been an example to governors around the country.

It is amazing how far this city has come in the 21 years since the Manhattan Institute was founded. You have won battles once considered hopeless. You have gone from winning debating points to winning majorities — and I congratulate you.

Last month in California, I talked about disadvantaged children in troubled schools. I argued that the diminished hopes of our current system are sad and serious — the soft bigotry of low expectations.

And I set out a simple principle: Federal funds will no longer flow to failure. Schools that do not teach and will not change must have some final point of accountability. A moment of truth, when their Title 1 funds are divided up and given to parents, for tutoring or a charter school or some other hopeful option. In the best case, schools that are failing will rise to the challenge and regain the confidence of parents. In the worst case, we will offer scholarships to America's neediest children.

In any case, the federal government will no longer pay schools to cheat poor children.

But this is the beginning of our challenge, not its end. The final object of education reform is not just to shun mediocrity; it is to seek excellence. It is not just to avoid failure; it is to encourage achievement.

Our nation has a moral duty to ensure that no child is left behind.

And we also, at this moment, have a great national opportunity — to ensure that every child, in every public school, is challenged by high standards that meet the high hopes of parents. To build a culture of achievement that matches the optimism and aspirations of our country.

Not long ago, this would have seemed incredible. Our education debates were captured by a deep pessimism.

For decades, waves of reform were quickly revealed as passing fads, with little lasting result. For decades, funding rose while performance stagnated. Most parents, except in some urban districts, have not seen the collapse of education. They have seen a slow slide of expectations and standards. Schools where poor spelling is called "creative." Where math is "fuzzy" and grammar is optional. Where grade inflation is the norm.

Schools where spelling bees are canceled for being too competitive and selecting a single valedictorian is considered too exclusive. Where advancing from one grade to the next is unconnected to advancing skills. Schools where, as in Alice in Wonderland, "Everyone has won, and all must have prizes."

We are left with a nagging sense of lost potential. A sense of what could be, but is not.

It led the late Albert Shanker, of the American Federation of Teachers, to conclude: "Very few American pupils are performing anywhere near where they could be performing."

This cuts against the grain of American character. Most parents know that the self-esteem of children is not built by low standards, it is built by real accomplishments. Most parents know that good character is tied to, an ethic of study and hard work and merit — and that setbacks are as much a part of learning as awards.

Most Americans know that a healthy democracy must be committed both to equality and to excellence.

Until a few years ago, the debates of politics seemed irrelevant to these concerns. Democrats and Republicans argued mainly about funding and procedures — about dollars and devolution. Few talked of standards or accountability or of excellence for all our children.

But all this is beginning to change. In state after state, we are seeing a profound shift of priorities. An "age of accountability" is starting to replace an era of low expectations. And there is a growing conviction and confidence that the problems of public education are not an endless road or a hopeless maze.

The principles of this movement are similar from New York to Florida, from Massachusetts to Michigan. Raise the bar of standards.

Give schools the flexibility to meet them. Measure progress. Insist on results. Blow the whistle on failure. Provide parents with options to increase their influence. And don't give up on anyone.

There are now countless examples of public schools transformed by great expectations. Places like Earhart Elementary in Chicago, where students are expected to compose essays by the second grade.

Where these young children participate in a Junior Great Books program, and sixth graders are reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The principal explains, "All our children are expected to work above grade level and learn for the sake of learning. . . We instill a desire to overachieve. Give us an average child and we'll make him an overachiever."

This is a public school, and not a wealthy one. And it proves what is possible.

No one in Texas now doubts that public schools can improve. We are witnessing the promise of high standards and accountability. We require that every child read by the third grade, without exception or excuse. Every year, we test students on the academic basics. We disclose those results by school. We encourage the diversity and creativity of charters. We give local schools and districts the freedom to chart their own path to excellence.

I certainly don't claim credit for all these changes. But my state is proud of what we have accomplished together. Last week, the federal Department of Education announced that Texas eighth graders have some of the best writing skills in the country. In 1994, there were 67 schools in Texas rated "exemplary" according to our tests. This year, there are 1,120. We are proud, but we are not content. Now that we are meeting our current standards, I am insisting that we elevate those standards.

Now that we are clearing the bar, we are going to raise the bar — because we have set our sights on excellence.

At the beginning of the 1990s, so many of our nation's problems, from education to crime to welfare, seemed intractable — beyond our control. But something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline. Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible. They gave way to an optimistic, governing conservatism.

Here in New York, Mayor Giuliani brought order and civility back to the streets —cutting crime rates by 50 percent. In Wisconsin, Governor Tommy Thompson proved that welfare dependence could be reversed — reducing his rolls by 91 percent. Innovative mayors and governors followed their lead — cutting national welfare rolls by nearly half since 1994, and reducing the murder rate to the lowest point since 1967.

Now education reform is gaining a critical mass of results.

In the process, conservatism has become the creed of hope. The creed of aggressive, persistent reform. The creed of social progress.

Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah. Of course there are challenges to the character and compassion of our nation — too many broken homes and broken lives.

But many of our problems — particularly education, crime and welfare dependence — are yielding to good sense and strength and idealism. In states and cities around the country, we are making, not just points and pledges, but progress. We are demonstrating the genius for self-renewal at the heart of the American experiment.

Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else — speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO this and GNP that.

Of course we want growth and vigor in our economy. But there are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence. And the strongest argument for conservative ideals — for responsibility and accountability and the virtues of our tradition — is that they lead to greater justice, less suffering, more opportunity.

Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself

But this is not an option for conservatives. At the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin argued that the strength of our nation depends "on the general opinion of the goodness of government." Our Founders rejected cynicism, and cultivated a noble love of country. That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government.

And that should be our goal: A limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well.

This is an approach with echoes in our history. Echoes of Lincoln and emancipation and the Homestead Act and land-grant colleges. Echoes of Theodore Roosevelt and national parks and the Panama Canal. Echoes of Reagan and a confrontation with communism that sought victory, not stalemate.

What are the issues that challenge us, that summon us, in our time? Surely one of them must be excellence in education. Surely one of them must be to rekindle the spirit of learning and ambition in our common schools. And one of our great opportunities and urgent duties is to remake the federal role.

Even as many states embrace education reform, the federal government is mired in bureaucracy and mediocrity.

It is an obstacle, not an ally. Education bills are often rituals of symbolic spending without real accountability — like pumping gas into a flooded engine. For decades, fashionable ideas have been turned into programs, with little knowledge of their benefits for students and teachers. And even the obvious failures seldom disappear.

This is a perfect example of government that is big — and weak. Of government that is grasping — and impotent.

Let me share an example. The Department of Education recently streamlined the grant application process for states. The old procedure involved 487 different steps, taking an average of 26 weeks. So, a few years ago, the best minds of the administration got together and "reinvented" the grant process. Now it takes a mere 216 steps, and the wait is 20 weeks.

If this is reinventing government, it makes you wonder how this administration was ever skilled enough and efficient enough to create the Internet. I don't want to tinker with the machinery of the federal role in education. I want to redefine that role entirely.

I strongly believe in local control of schools and curriculum. I have consistently placed my faith in states and schools and parents and teachers — and that faith, in Texas, has been rewarded.

I also believe a president should define and defend the unifying ideals of our nation — including the quality of our common schools. He must lead, without controlling. He must set high goals — without being high-handed. The inertia of our education bureaucracy is a national problem, requiring a national response. Sometimes inaction is not restraint — it is complicity. Sometimes it takes the use of executive power to empower others.

Effective education reform requires both pressure from above and competition from below — a demand for high standards and measurement at the top, given momentum and urgency by expanded options for parents and students. So, as president, here is what I'll do. First, I will fundamentally change the relationship of the states and federal government in education. Now we have a system of excessive regulation and no standards. In my administration, we will have minimal regulation and high standards.

Second, I will promote more choices for parents in the education of their children. In the end, it is parents, armed with information and options, who turn the theory of reform into the reality of excellence.

All reform begins with freedom and local control. It unleashes creativity. It permits those closest to children to exercise their judgment. And it also removes the excuse for failure. Only those with the ability to change can be held to account.

But local control has seldom been a priority in Washington. In 1965, when President Johnson signed the very first Elementary and Secondary Education Act, not one school board trustee, from anywhere in the country, was invited to the ceremony. Local officials were viewed as the enemy. And that attitude has lingered too long.

As president, I will begin by taking most of the 60 different categories of federal education grants and paring them down to five: improving achievement among disadvantaged children; promoting fluency in English; training and recruiting teachers; encouraging character and school safety; and promoting innovation and parental choice. Within these divisions, states will have maximum flexibility to determine their priorities.

They will only be asked to certify that their funds are being used for the specific purposes intended — and the federal red tape ends there.

This will spread authority to levels of government that people can touch. And it will reduce paperwork — allowing schools to spend less on filing forms and more on what matters: teachers' salaries and children themselves.

In return, we will ask that every state have a real accountability system — meaning that they test every child, every year, in grades three through eight, on the basics of reading and math; broadly disclose those results by school, including on the Internet; and have clear consequences for success and failure. States will pick their own tests, and the federal government will share the costs of administering them.

States can choose tests off-the-shelf, like Arizona; adapt tests like California; or contract for new tests like Texas. Over time, if a state's results are improving, it will be rewarded with extra money — a total of $500 million in awards over five years. If scores are stagnant or dropping, the administrative portion of their federal funding — about 5 percent — will be diverted to a fund for charter schools.

We will praise and reward success — and shine a spotlight of shame on failure.

What I am proposing today is a fresh start for the federal role in education. A pact of principle. Freedom in exchange for achievement. Latitude in return for results. Local control with one national goal: excellence for every child.

I am opposed to national tests, written by the federal government.

If Washington can control the content of tests, it can dictate the content of state curricula — a role our central government should not play.

But measurement at the state level is essential. Without testing, reform is a journey without a compass. Without testing, teachers and administrators cannot adjust their methods to meet high goals. Without testing, standards are little more than scraps of paper.

Without testing, true competition is impossible. Without testing, parents are left in the dark.

In fact, the greatest benefit of testing — with the power to transform a school or a system — is the information it gives to parents. They will know — not just by rumor or reputation, but by hard numbers — which schools are succeeding and which are not.

Given that information, more parents will be pulled into activism — becoming participants, not spectators, in the education of their children. Armed with that information, parents will have the leverage to force reform.

Information is essential. But reform also requires options. Monopolies seldom change on their own — no matter how good the intentions of those who lead them. Competition is required to jolt a bureaucracy out of its lethargy.

So my second goal for the federal role of education is to increase the options and influence of parents.

The reform of Title 1 I've proposed would begin this process. We will give parents with children in failing schools — schools where the test scores of Title 1 children show no improvement over three years — the resources to seek more hopeful options. This will amount to a scholarship of about $1,500 a year.

And parents can use those funds for tutoring or tuition — for anything that gives their children a fighting chance at learning. The theory is simple. Public funds must be spent on things that work — on helping children, not sustaining failed schools that refuse to change.

The response to this plan has been deeply encouraging. Yet some politicians have gone to low performing schools and claimed my plan would undermine them.

Think a moment about what that means. It means visiting a school and saying, in essence, "You are hopeless. Not only can't you achieve, you can't even improve." That is not a defense of public education, it is a surrender to despair. That is not liberalism, it is pessimism. It is accepting and excusing an educational apartheid in our country — segregating poor children into a world without the hope of change.

Everyone, in both parties, seems to agree with accountability in theory. But what could accountability possibly mean if children attend schools for 12 years without learning to read or write? Accountability without consequences is empty — the hollow shell of reform. And all our children deserve better.

In our education reform plan, we will give states more flexibility to use federal funds, at their option, for choice programs — including private school choice.

In some neighborhoods, these new options are the first sign of hope, of real change, that parents have seen for a generation.

But not everyone wants or needs private school choice. Many parents in America want more choices, higher standards and more influence within their public schools. This is the great promise of charter schools — the path that New York is now beginning. And this, in great part, is a tribute to the Manhattan Institute.

If charters are properly done — free to hire their own teachers, adopt their own curriculum, set their own operating rules and high standards — they will change the face of American education. Public schools — without bureaucracy. Public schools —controlled by parents. Public schools — held to the highest goals. Public schools — as we imagined they could be.

For parents, they are schools on a human scale, where their voice is heard and heeded. For students, they are more like a family than a factory — a place where it is harder to get lost. For teachers, who often help found charter schools, they are a chance to teach as they've always wanted. Says one charter school teacher in Boston: "We don't have to wait to make changes. We don't have to wait for the district to decide that what we are doing is within the rules. . .

So we can really put the interests of the kids first."

This morning I visited the new Sisulu Children's Academy in Harlem — New York's first charter school. In an area where only a quarter of children can read at or above grade level, Sisulu Academy offers a core curriculum of reading, math, science and history. There will be an extended school day, and the kids will also learn computer skills, art, music and dance. And there is a waiting list of 100 children.

This is a new approach — even a new definition of public education. These schools are public because they are publicly funded and publicly accountable for results. The vision of parents and teachers and principals determines the rest. Money follows the child. The units of delivery get smaller and more personal. Some charters go back to basics . . . some attract the gifted . . . some emphasize the arts.

It is a reform movement that welcomes diversity, but demands excellence. And this is the essence of real reform.

Charter schools benefit the children within them — as well as the public school students beyond them. The evidence shows that competition often strengthens all the schools in a district. In Arizona, in places where charters have arrived — teaching phonics and extending hours and involving parents — suddenly many traditional public schools are following suit.

The greatest problem facing charter schools is practical — the cost of building them. Unlike regular public schools, they receive no capital funds. And the typical charter costs about $1.5 million to construct. Some are forced to start in vacant hotel rooms or strip malls.

As president, I want to fan the spark of charter schools into a flame. My administration will establish a Charter School Homestead Fund, to help finance these start-up costs.

We will provide capital to education entrepreneurs — planting new schools on the frontiers of reform. This fund will support $3 billion in loan guarantees in my first two years in office — enough to seed 2,000 schools. Enough to double the existing number.

This will be a direct challenge to the status quo in public education — in a way that both changes it and strengthens it. With charters, someone cares enough to say, "I'm dissatisfied."

Someone is bold enough to say, "I can do better." And all our schools will aim higher if we reward that kind of courage and vision.

And we will do one thing more for parents. We will expand Education Savings Accounts to cover education expenses in grades K through 12, allowing parents or grandparents to contribute up to $5,000 dollars per year, per student. Those funds can be withdrawn tax-free for tuition payments, or books, or tutoring or transportation — whatever students need most.

Often this nation sets out to reform education for all the wrong reasons — or at least for incomplete ones. Because the Soviets launch Sputnick. Or because children in Singapore have high test scores. Or because our new economy demands computer operators.

But when parents hope for their children, they hope with nobler goals. Yes, we want them to have the basic skills of life. But life is more than a race for riches.

A good education leads to intellectual self-confidence, and ambition and a quickened imagination. It helps us, not just to live, but to live well.

And this private good has public consequences. In his first address to Congress, President Washington called education "the surest basis of public happiness." America's founders believed that self-government requires a certain kind of citizen.

Schooled to think clearly and critically, and to know America's civic ideals. Freed, by learning, to rise, by merit. Education is the way a democratic culture reproduces itself through time.

This is the reason a conservative should be passionate about education reform — the reason a conservative should fight strongly and care deeply. Our common schools carry a great burden for the common good. And they must be more than schools of last resort.

Every child must have a quality education — not just in islands of excellence. Because we are a single nation with a shared future. Because, as Lincoln said, we are "brothers of a common country."

Thank you.

 


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MANHATTAN INSTITUTE FORUM

SUMMARY:
Presidential hopeful Governor George W. Bush addresses his view on educational reform

SPEAKER:
The Honorable George W. Bush, Governor of Texas
WELCOMING REMARKS:
The Honorable George E. Pataki, Governor of New York
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS:
The Reverend Dr. Floyd H. Flake, Pastor, Allen AME Church, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

 


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