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Bush Heads Toward Texas Landslide With Public Education His Priority

October 05, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

AUSTIN, Texas — On the road to a landslide reelection victory next month, Texas Gov. George W. Bush leaves no doubt where he would turn first in a second term: "Public education," he says crisply, "is my No. 1 priority." The most important word in that sentence is "public." It's the key to a telling fault line between state and federal Republicans--and a central question looming over a potential Bush presidential campaign in 2000.

Like most Republican governors, Bush has concentrated his energy on invigorating and reforming the public schools. In contrast, congressional Republicans have concentrated on ideas that affect families interested in private education: vouchers and tax-favored accounts for private school tuition. If that agenda affects families in the public schools at all, it is only indirectly: on the bank-shot theory that helping more kids flee to private schools will force the public schools to somehow improve.

The congressional Republican approach reflects deep resistance in the party to any federal role in public education--and, in some quarters, a quiet skepticism that public schools can (or even should) be saved. But as a political matter, the focus on private education is inherently isolating: Just 14% of American students attend private schools, no more than in 1960. The Republican inability to say much to the other 86% helps explain why Democrats consistently lead the GOP in national surveys that ask which party is more trusted to improve education.

Here in Texas, though, Bush's polls show him with a nearly three-to-one lead on education issues over his Democratic opponent, state Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. The reason--in a state where more than half of the students in public school are minorities--is Bush's unambiguous commitment to strengthening public education in a way that fulfills its historic mission of expanding opportunity.

"The thing he is committed to--and I don't think this is true of Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey or Trent Lott--is a system that provides quality education for every child," says John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers.

Like every other state, Texas can't yet say that it meets that standard. It still has too many unqualified teachers (partly because it pays them so little), too many districts that need to expand or modernize their facilities (especially in poorer areas), and too many students not performing at grade level. But the trend lines in student achievement are pointing up more sharply here than almost anywhere else in the nation.

Since 1993, the share of students passing the state's annual reading tests has jumped 17 points; in math the passing rate is up 31 points. Black and Latino students are improving even faster than white students, one of the only states where that's so, notes Uri Treisman, director of an education research center at the University of Texas. "As an old lefty," says Treisman, "I can't believe how good Bush is on this stuff."

Key to Texas' gains has been a reform model that combines decentralized authority with standardized measurement. Each year the state "accountability system" grades every school on a four-level scale (from exemplary to low-performing) based mostly on their students' scores on the state tests; the annual publication of the rankings puts enormous pressure on schools to improve.

At the same time, Bush has given schools more flexibility to innovate by stripping away reams of state regulations. "Aligning responsibility and authority at the local level," Bush says, "means that you have really taken away any excuse for failure."

In part, Bush is benefiting from decisions made before his election in 1994. (Earlier reformers expanded preschool instruction, reduced early-grade class sizes and built the spine of the accountability system.) But he's made his own mark. He won legislative approval for the devolution of authority to local districts and the authorization of the state's first charter schools, and he's steadily toughened the accountability system despite attacks from the left and right alike.

"If we had had any other governor, it would have been weakened by now," says Charles Miller, a Houston businessman who helped design it.

Most important, Bush in 1996 riveted the school system's attention by insisting that the state must teach every child to read by the third grade. Now he wants to underscore the point by phasing in a system that ties promotion to passing the state reading, math and writing tests--and offers extra help for students who fail. That would place Texas at the forefront of efforts nationwide to end social promotion.

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