George H.W. Bush laid the foundation for education reform

George H.W. Bush fulfilled his desire – articulated late in his 1988 campaign for president – to be “the education president.” It just took three decades.

It’s true that Bush passed no education bills during his one term as president.

His next three successors, by contrast, all produced signature education legislation: Goals 2000 for Bill Clinton, No Child Left Behind for George W. Bush and both Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act for Barack Obama. All, however, followed a plan drawn up by George H.W. Bush. He was – in my view as an education historian – the architect of sweeping change.

The cornerstone of the Bush education blueprint was an elite bipartisan consensus. Like his predecessor in the White House – Ronald Reagan – Bush was sympathetic to the free market. But unlike Reagan, Bush was a pragmatist, and as vice president had watched Reagan fail in his push for tuition vouchers. But Bush was also a consummate Washington insider, less intent on dismantling government than on improving it. In the long wake of the alarmist A Nation at Risk report, which suggested that American students were falling behind their international peers, Bush offered a new vision for federal involvement in education. Rather than choosing between the unregulated market and the heavy hand of government to fix schools, Bush offered a third way, making the case that entrepreneurial activity in education should be encouraged and carefully monitored by the state. That vision, which shaped an entire generation of education reformers, remains the foundation of an enduring consensus liberals and conservatives alike.

Federal government as catalyst

Beyond establishing a vision, Bush threw his energies into school reform projects large and small. In keeping with his belief that the federal government could “serve as a catalyst” in promoting change, he was an early advocate for charter schools, which he successfully framed as a bipartisan marriage of entrepreneurism and government, and which he pitched not as devices of the free market, but as an experimentation against inequality. Through the New American Schools Development Corporation, for instance, Bush funded the Community Learning Centers of Minnesota project – the first endeavor “based on the charter school concept, a variation of the school choice approach.” In so doing, he created a model that would be replicated a thousand times over.

Perhaps most significantly, Bush laid the foundation for standards-based accountability. Before he took office, the federal government had little involvement in the governance of public schools. President Lyndon Johnson had increased Washington’s reach through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which channeled vast new sums to schools. But Johnson and his successors – including Jimmy Carter, who elevated the Department of Education to the Cabinet – had done little to position the federal government as a kind of executive suite in public education. Bush changed that, and sought to do so by developing top-down accountability through curricular standards and aligned tests.

Less than a year after taking office, the Bush administration worked with the National Governors’ Association to organize the 1989 Charlottesville education summit – a meeting at which then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton distinguished himself as an ally. A few short months later, in his 1990 State of the Union address, Bush proposed his America 2000 legislation, which called for standardized tests that would “tell parents and educators, politicians, and employers just how well our schools are doing.”