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Friday, April 22, 2005

Is President George W. Bush an educational conservative?

by William L. Bainbridge

Shortly after his first inauguration in early 2001, President George W. Bush announced his approach to education policy by emphasizing local control of our schools. In speaking at the National Conference of State Legislatures on March 3rd of that year, he explained his education goals which supported giving local jurisdictions control of school systems while requiring performance accountability and testing.

"I can assure you this administration understands the importance of local control of schools, that we don't believe in the federalization of the public school system, that one size does not fit all when it comes to education," Bush said. He stressed the importance of local and state school systems being able to "chart their own path" for children, saying he would not support a national student skills examination.

While many refer to the President as a "conservative," he and his politically appointed colleagues in the U.S. Department of Education do not perform like conservatives.

Political science books describe conservatism as "a disposition in politics to preserve what is established" or "a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change."

When campaigning, conservatives frequently describe their philosophy as one of local control. During the Clinton and Carter administrations, "conservative politicians" condemned liberals for "top-down actions from Washington D.C." President Bush and his Secretary of Education appointees, first Roderick R. Paige and now Margaret Spellings, have been on unprecedented top-down management sprees since taking office.

The appointments of both Paige and Spellings to the nation's highest education position from political rather than traditional educational leadership position paths were hardly conservative moves. Paige was a coach and college of education dean prior to being elected as a member of the board of education of the Houston Independent School District. In an unusual political coup, he moved from board member to superintendent of the huge HISD to U.S. Secretary of Education. Paige is known for his broken relationship with many education groups. He publicly referred to the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization." Recently it was reported that the U.S.Department of Education under Paige initiated a public relations "arrangement" with talk-show commentator Armstrong Williams who was paid a more than conservative $240,000 for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Secretary of Education Spellings is serving in her first line management position as the nation's top school administrator. She previously served as assistant to the President for domestic policy and as a senior advisor for then Texas Governor Bush. Spellings recently responded to criticism of the "Washington-knows-best" Bush administration policies on implementing " NCLB." She offered states more flexibility in meeting federal testing requirements if they can show they're improving student achievement. Under federal order, states still must conduct annual testing, reduce learning gaps for minority and low-income students, and meet teacher-quality requirements. .

NCLB moves control over instructional and curriculum issues away from teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards where it should be, and places it in the hands of federal and state educational bureaucracies and politicians, where it should not be. NCLB represents the largest assault on local control of American schools in history. The massive increase in testing that NCLB imposed on schools has hurt educational performance, not improved it. The law's impact, to date, is highly correlated with increased dropout rates in most states. In a stinging rebuke of NCLB the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature recently passed legislation ordering state officials to ignore provisions of the federal law that conflict with Utah's education goals or that require state financing.

The bill is the most explicit legislative challenge to the federal law by a state, and its passage marked the collapse of a 15-month lobbying effort against it by the Bush administration.

Asking the U.S manage education from shore to shore can hardly be called a conservative cause. In less than five years, President Bush has presided over more government expansion in education than took place during the eight years of President Clinton. During the Clinton years there was a substantial reduction in federal spending as a share of gross domestic product, although much of the credit must go to a Republican Congress, especially former House Budget Chair John R. Kasich.

How can President Bush continue to be described as a conservative by the media ? Although claiming to oppose big government he expands it to monumental and unprecedented proportions. He claims to champion states rights at the expense of the federal government, but supports actions not previously experienced by increasing Federal involvement in the governance of public schools, historically a state and local function.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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