AUSTIN, Texas – Former President George W. Bush said the education achievement gap – up to four years at some grade-levels – is a "nation scandal" that deserves immediate action.
Bush, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama addressed a three-day summit here last week celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas.
Speaking at the closing session Thursday, Bush said: "According to the most recent testing, the average reading score for a white student at age 13 is about the same as an African-American at age 17 – that's a four-year, four-grade achievement gap. In an economy where higher skills are ever more necessary, that is scandalous. In a nation dedicated to equal opportunity, that is scandalous. Among the political heirs of King and Johnson and Dirksen and Humphrey, this should be a national scandal, demanding action."
His references were to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); President Lyndon B. Johnson, former Illinois Senator and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and former Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, who replaced Johnson as vice president when Kennedy was assassinated.
"The goal of ending achievement gaps should unite Republicans and Democrats," Bush said. "It should unite teachers and parents, business leaders and civil rights leaders. It should unite anyone committed to a reasonable assessment program, transparency with results, and holding the system accountable – anyone who believes in unleashing local creativity while maintaining clear measures and objectives."
Even though he described himself as a "compassionate conservative," Bush – unlike Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama – was not popular among African Americans. He rejected an invitation to address the NAACP early in his tenure at the White House, members of the Congressional Black Caucus complained about the lack of access to him, the Bush administration argued against race-conscious programs in cases before the Supreme Court and Bush filled two court vacancies on the High Court with ultra-conservatives, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Though conservatives like Bush favor a limited federal role in society, the former president said there is a proper role for the federal government to play in education, essentially a state function.
"There is a needed federal role – it is not to dictate methods, but to help educate poor, minority, and special education children," Bush said. "But when we invest taxpayers' dollars, it is only right to insist upon results. And when we find poor results, it is only right to blow the whistle on mediocrity."
To blow the whistle on mediocrity, the domestic hallmark of Bush's two terms in the White House became the No Child Left Behind Act, his legislative mandate to bring about more accountability in public education.
The measure, a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was signed into law by Bush in 2001. It required all public schools receiving federal funds to administer a statewide standardized test each year to all students and show progress in successive years. Schools that repeatedly failed to meet that standard were forced to make major changes, including offering students extra help, extending classroom hours and, when necessary, replacing teachers and staff.
"Beginning in the 1990s, many states, including the greatest state – that being Texas – lost patience with the pace of change," said Bush, whose family is from the Lone Star state. "These reform efforts gathered into a national accountability movement and culminated in the bipartisan effort called No Child Left Behind. It is a rare kind of issue that could unite (late Senator) Ted Kennedy, me, and (Democratic Congressman) George Miller... We found common ground: Schools must demonstrate improved results on reading and math for minority children – or face consequences if they don't. It is hard to imagine that anything so basic could be so controversial. It was, and it still is."
The No Child Left Behind Act expired on Sept. 30, 2007, though there is still pressure to renew it.
Critics of the controversial law said it encouraged instructors to teach to the test rather than provide an all-round quality education and made new demands on schools without providing additional funding. Opponents, including former U. S. Senator Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois, mocked the No Child Left Behind law by calling it, "No Child Left With a Behind."
In an apparent nod to his critics, Bush acknowledged, "No law is perfect. Every legislative instrument eventually requires adjustment. But the problem comes when people start to give up on the goal. Some have ideological objections to any federal role in education. Some are too comfortable with the status quo. The alliance between ideology and complacency seems to be getting stronger. I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning. And for the sake of America's children, that is something we cannot allow. "
And for the sake of children of color, Bush said, education must remain a top priority.
"It is not a coincidence that many of the defining struggles of the civil rights era – from Little Rock Central (High School) to the University of Mississippi – took place in educational settings. Those who engage in oppression and exploitation always deny real learning. Those who fight oppression always insist on equal education. Through civil rights laws, we assure justice in the present. Through education, we secure justice for the next generation," Bush said.
"King knew this. He called education 'the road to equality and citizenship.' Both these destinations are very important. Education provides the skills necessary to expand horizons and allow for economic success. Education also exposes young men and women to the great ideals of our heritage – liberty and responsibility, participation and patriotism. And in so doing we secure our democratic way of life."
Unlike President Obama and former presidents Carter and Clinton, Bush made no mention of the Great Society, President Johnson's signature social legislation that included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
Throughout his career as governor of Texas and as president, Bush has been generally critical of such programs. In his speech, Bush decided to focus on Johnson's contributions to education rather than areas where their policies differed.
Bush said, "During the last 50 years, educational progress has been generally positive – but completely insufficient. Education in America is no longer legally separate, but it is still not effectively equal. Quality education for everyone, of every background, remains one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time."