On the morning of September 11, President Bush was sitting in the second-grade class of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School. The location is revealing: Up to the moment Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear, Bush believed he was going to be an Education President. The second plane put an end to that, of course; and when he signed his education plan into law on January 8, the celebration was understandably muted.
Nonetheless, the legislation delivers a huge victory to Bush: This year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is widely regarded as the most ambitious federal overhaul of public schools since the 1960s. States will now test all students annually from third to eighth grade, while launching a federally guided drive for universal literacy among schoolchildren. Perhaps more strikingly, a political party that once called for the abolition of the Education Department has radically enhanced the federal presence in public schools. After repeating the mantra of local control and states’ rights for a generation, the GOP now intrudes on both. What has happened?
The Bush revolution in education is the culmination of a decade of educational reform spearheaded by conservatives and business leaders. To gauge the significance of this trend, consider the original aspirations for an American public school system: As Horace Mann, and later John Dewey, saw it, public schools were necessary to fashion a common national culture out of a far-flung and often immigrant population, and to prepare young people to be reflective and critical citizens in a democratic society. The emphasis was on self-governance through self-respect; a sense of cultural ownership through participation; and ultimately, freedom from tyranny through rational deliberation.
Fast-forward to 2002: The new Bush testing regime emphasizes minimal competence along a narrow range of skills, with an eye toward satisfying the low end of the labor market. All this sits well with a business community whose first preoccupation is “global competitiveness”: a community most comfortable thinking in terms of inputs (dollars spent on public schools) in relation to outputs (test scores). No one disputes that schools must inculcate the skills necessary for economic survival. But does it follow that the theory behind public schooling should be overwhelmingly economic? One of the reform movement’s founding documents is Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America’s Public Schools, by Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM. Gerstner describes schoolchildren as human capital, teachers as sellers in a marketplace and the public school system as a monopoly. Predictably, CEOs bring to education reform CEO rhetoric: stringent, intolerant of failure, even punitive–hence the word “sanction,” as if some schools had been turning away weapons inspectors.
Nowhere has this orientation been more frank than in George W. Bush’s policies, first as Texas governor and now as President. When he invited a group of “education leaders” to join him for his first day in the White House, the guest list was dominated by Fortune 500 CEOs. One, Harold McGraw, the publishing scion and current chairman of McGraw-Hill, summed up: “It’s a great day for education, because we now have substantial alignment among all the key constituents–the public, the education community, business and political leaders–that results matter.”