Bush's Education Record

Shrub-The Short but Happy Political Life Of George W. Bush 
Author-Molly Ivins

The  record needs to be set straight concerning two of Bush's most dubious claims. The first is that  he, himself, George w. Bush, "ended social promotion in Texas." It's a silly damn thing to say. Social promotion is the practice of promoting a student to the next grade along with his age group, even when the student's academic skills are clearly insufficient. Social promotion has been illegal in Texas since 1984 . There is literally a law requiring school districts to ensure that students are performing at grade level before they can be promoted. In 1998 this was quietly pointed out to Bush, since his platform consisted largely of the pledge that he would see to it that "every child in Texas is able to read by the end of the third grade." Since they're already required to be at grade level before they can go on, this was an equally fatuous claim. But the campaign message resonated well with voters, so he went right on using it.

The only change concerning social promotion under the Bush administration flies directly in the face of Bush's often-stated  philosophy that we should "trust local people to make right choices about their schools and cities." And it is a change deplored by educators around the state. Pre-George W., the law left up to local school districts how they would determine whether a student had adequate skills to be promoted to the next grade. We are talking here about K though 8, as they say in school jargon, since high school promotion is based on earned course credits. In Houston, for example, the policy was that a child could not be promoted unless he met two of the following criteria:(1) passing  class grades;(2) passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test; and (3) passing a nationally recognized academic-skills test. We could find no educators who support using even one single criterion to determine a young child's fate.

But Bush began the 1999 session with a simple-minded solution to a nonexistent problem: require every child to pass the TAAS test before being promoted to the next grade. The trouble with that simple solution is that not all children do well at test-taking. It's an extreme notion to base a third-grader's total chance of promotion to the fourth grade on how she performs on one test, taken on a single day, when she might be ill or emotionally upset. In addition to taking away flexibility and choice from "local people", the downside of ending social portion is that it increases the drop-out rate, as countless studies have shown. So many educators showed up to protest Bush's simplistic approach that the Legislature finally compromised, requiring children to pass either TAAS or some other state-approved test.

What we have done is make a single annual test the most important event in every young Texan's life. We envision a happy future for shrinks working on "test anxiety syndrome." The message to teacher is "Teach the test," and the message to kids is "Learn how to pass the test.". This is not education.

The emphasis on the single test is beginning to make some legislators nervous, and several are calling for a reevaluation of TAAS. The TAAS test was originally designed as a way to measure how the state's 7,000 schools and 1,120 school districts compare with one another in educating  children. It was not intended to be the final judge for children. It is, however, the foundation of the "accountability system" in Texas schools and has indeed been helpful for that purpose. TAAS was instituted by Skip Meno, Ann Richard's education commissioner, in 1991. 

Bush's first foray into education policy was not a happy one. He ran in 1994 calling for less government regulation of schools and more local innovation; he was a great promoter of "charter schools," So during the 1995 session the Legislature set up a pilot program to fund twenty charter schools that would be free of most state regulation, including teacher certification. The idea was to give parents and local educators the freedom to fit the school to the children in the community. The charter schools receive state funds, as do regular public schools, based on average daily attendance--so much per head. The purpose of making it a pilot program was so the first twenty schools could be evaluated before more were considered.

But Bush liked his pet program so much, he pushed for expansion in 1997, before any evaluation could begin. The first seventeen charter schools opened their doors in the fall of 1996, so not even a full school year had passed before he asked for more. But Bush got what he wanted from the Legislature, and his staff began pushing the Texas Education Agency to approve additional charters as rapidly as possible. At that time, the charter division of the TEA  had two employees. The final decision on approval of the schools lay with the State Board of Education, with its fifteen elected members. So despite painfully inadequate staff and a board with no guidelines or criteria, the number of charter schools exploded from 17 to 168 in just six months.

One applicant for a charter was Ida Pinkard of Waco, a former postal employee with no experience in education other that being a mother and grandmother. Her resume said she had taken some courses at a community college but had not graduated. Nevertheless, she was given a charter for Emma L. Harrison School in Waco, which opened in 1998 to serve kids K through 9 with its seventeen teachers. Enrollment was initially at least two hundred children, most of them African-American. Since the school's records are a shambles, it is impossible to estimate average daily attendance, but the school got $750,00 in state funds based on Pinkard's estimate of the number of students.

The first clue that something was amiss came when the school failed to get its request for textbooks into the state until October. By mid-December, the teachers' paychecks had started to bounce, as had those given to local vendors by the school. Word of these problems began to spread, and in January all but one of the school's board members resigned. The Waco Tribune-Herald began writing about the problems in February, whereupon Ida Pinkard banned the media from her campus. At which point even officials in Austin realized there was an ox in the ditch. The TEA dispatched a special master (who is appointed by the court and has the authority to take over a public entity), an experience superintendent, and financial auditors to get a handle on the situation. The special master recommended that the school be closed as soon as possible. The records were a mess and contracts nonexistent an school funds had been mingled with those of a community center. The final audit showed the Emma L. Harrison charter school almost $400,00 in debt, including about $83,000 owed to the IRS, and Social Security and Medicare on employees wages. the kids? only 11 out of 103 who took the TAAS test passed it.

In another case, a charter school took the money, trained teachers, gussied up an old building, and was then broke. No students were ever admitted. Four other charter schools "forgot" to give the TAAS test. All of this could have been avoided if Bush had heeded the advise he was emphatically given--to move slowly so that the adjustments in the program could be made as needed. Some charter schools  may work out well in the long run. But not in time to save the children in Waco from a lost year.

Without extrapolating too much from one scarred program, this is an example of Bush's cavalier attitude about governance--policy simply does not interest him. He told Tucker Carlson, "Sitting down and reading a 500 page book on public policy or philosophy or something" is what  he likes least. Again, the puzzle of Bush is why someone with so little interest in or attention for policy, for making government work, would want the job of president or even governor.

Molly's syndicated Column in the 'Star Telegram'

Consideration of the Disposition of the Charter Emma L. Harrison Charter School
Jen Sansbury Waco Tribune-Herald - Investigative Reporting of E.L.H. Charter School
Not all Sold on Charter Schools - 'Star Telegram' Austin Bureau


Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Star-Telegram.