Bush Embraces Child-Centered Education Funding

Published October 1, 1999

Criticized for being too vague on issues, Republican presidential front_runner George W. Bush answered just before Labor Day by endorsing the concept that federal tax dollars should follow children from failing schools to schools of choice. By taking a reformer’s stand, Bush may have ensured that education will be the defining issue in the 2000 campaign.

The Texas Governor zeroed in on Title I’s failure to close the achievement gap for children of poverty, despite Washington’s funneling almost $8 billion a year into target schools. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which Title I is a major part, is up for a five_year reauthorization this year. It has cost the nation’s taxpayers $120 billion since 1965.

Bush would take a “three strikes and you’re out” approach to Title I. States would administer their own achievement tests annually. Three straight years of failure and schools would lose their Title I subsidy. Instead, that money would go to families, bundled with other funds in the form of a $1,500 per_pupil stipend that they could use “for tutoring, for a charter school, for a working public school in a different district, or for a private school__for whatever parents choose. For whatever offers hope.”

Bush also endorsed phonics for beginning reading, and panned education fads that are “sloppy and trendy, focusing on self_esteem over basic skills.” Furthermore, he said the $4.4 billion Project Head Start should return to its original focus__literacy__and cease being just a program of day care, nutrition, and health.

His stand, taken at a Latino Business Expo in downtown Los Angeles, attracted heavy fire from Democratic contenders Al Gore and Bill Bradley, from both national teacher unions, and from the National School Boards Association, as well as (for different reasons) from the Republican Right. But his results_oriented approach seemed to play well with his audience. The idea of a three_year deadline for results jibes with efforts to reform bilingual education so that children who grew up with another language quickly learn English. The focus should be less on method than the common goal of English literacy, Bush said.

Perhaps the strongest attack came from Bush’s fellow GOP contender, Steve Forbes. “Governor Bush’s education plan is too weak, too narrow, and it still leaves Big Government in control of the education monopoly, not parents,” said Forbes’ national chairman. “Governor Bush tells parents to wait three more years for real school reform. Is he kidding? We can’t wait to reform American education.”

Vice President Al Gore, who is running for the Democratic nomination, charged that “what little money would be left for education with his risky Republican tax plan would be wiped out by his back_door voucher plan.” Gore’s intraparty competitor, Bill Bradley, said vouchers aren’t the answer to public school problems, noting they raise “issues of church and state.”

Bush didn’t use the word “voucher.” But he can no longer be fairly accused of sitting on a lead. By taking the position that funds should follow the child rather than propping up failed systems, Bush may have set the terms of the education debate, and put it center stage for 2000.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.