Reading Between the Lines
And, not surprisingly, the Bush legislation has ardent supporters in the testing and textbook publishing industries. Only days after the 2000 election, an executive for publishing giant NCS Pearson addressed a Waldorf ballroom filled with Wall Street analysts. According to Education Week, the executive displayed a quote from President-elect Bush calling for state testing and school-by-school report cards, and announced, "This almost reads like our business plan." The bill has allotted $387 million to get states up to speed; the National Association of State Boards of Education estimates that properly funding the testing mandate could cost anywhere from $2.7 billion to $7 billion. The bottom line? "This promises to be a bonanza for the testing companies," says Monte Neill of FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit. "Fifteen states now test in all the grades Bush wants. All the rest are going to have to increase the amount of testing they do." Testing was already big business: According to Peter Sacks, author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, between 1960 and 1989 sales of standardized tests to public schools more than doubled, while enrollment increased only 15 percent. Over the past five years alone, state testing expenditures have almost tripled, from $141 million to $390 million, according to Achieve Inc., a standards-movement group formed by governors and CEOs. Under the new legislation, as many as fifteen states might need to triple their testing budgets.
All of which has led to a feeding frenzy. Educational Testing Service, maker of the SAT, has always been nonprofit; but it recently created a for-profit, K-12 subsidiary, ETS K-12 Works, to provide "testing and measurement services to the nation's elementary and secondary schools." To help market it, the company replaced CEO Nancy Cole, an educator with a background in psychometrics, with an executive from the marketing wing of the pharmaceutical industry. As new CEO Kurt Landgraf recently declared, ETS has a "moral responsibility" to participate in the debate on the "viability of high-stakes outcome testing," for "the betterment of our society and the people in it."
The big educational testing companies have thus dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill. Bruce Hunter, who represents the American Association of School Administrators, says, "I've been lobbying on education issues since 1982, but the test publishers have been active at a level I've never seen before. At every hearing, every discussion, the big test publishers are always present with at least one lobbyist, sometimes more." Both standardized testing and textbook publishing are dominated by the so-called Big Three--McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin and Harcourt General--all identified as "Bush stocks" by Wall Street analysts in the wake of the 2000 election.
While critics of the Bush Administration's energy policies have pointed repeatedly to its intimacy with the oil and gas industry--specifically the now-imploding Enron--few education critics have noted the Administration's cozy relationship with McGraw-Hill. At its heart lies the three-generation social mingling between the McGraw and Bush families. The McGraws are old Bush friends, dating back to the 1930s, when Joseph and Permelia Pryor Reed began to establish Jupiter Island, a barrier island off the coast of Florida, as a haven for the Northeast wealthy. The island's original roster of socialite vacationers reads like a who's who of American industry, finance and government: the Meads, the Mellons, the Paysons, the Whitneys, the Lovetts, the Harrimans--and Prescott Bush and James McGraw Jr. The generations of the two families parallel each other closely in age: the patriarchs Prescott and James Jr., son George and nephew Harold Jr., and grandson George W. and grandnephew Harold III, who now runs the family publishing empire.
The amount of cross-pollination and mutual admiration between the Administration and that empire is striking: Harold McGraw Jr. sits on the national grant advisory and founding board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. McGraw in turn received the highest literacy award from President Bush in the early 1990s, for his contributions to the cause of literacy. The McGraw Foundation awarded current Bush Education Secretary Rod Paige its highest educator's award while Paige was Houston's school chief; Paige, in turn, was the keynote speaker at McGraw-Hill's "government initiatives" conference last spring. Harold McGraw III was selected as a member of President George W. Bush's transition advisory team, along with McGraw-Hill board member Edward Rust Jr., the CEO of State Farm and an active member of the Business Roundtable on educational issues. An ex-chief of staff for Barbara Bush is returning to work for Laura Bush in the White House--after a stint with McGraw-Hill as a media relations executive. John Negroponte left his position as McGraw-Hill's executive vice president for global markets to become Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.
And over the years, Bush's education policies have been a considerable boon to the textbook publishing conglomerate. In the mid-1990s, then-Governor Bush became intensely focused on childhood literacy in Texas. For a period of roughly two years, most often at the invitation of the Governor, a small group of reading experts testified repeatedly about what would constitute a "scientifically valid" reading curriculum for Texas schoolchildren. As critics pointed out, a preponderance of the consultants were McGraw-Hill authors. "Like ants at a picnic," recalls Richard Allington, an education professor at the University of Florida. "They wrote statements of principles for the Texas Education Agency, advised on the development of the reading curriculum framework, helped shape the state board of education call for new reading textbooks. Not surprisingly, the 'research' was presented as supporting McGraw-Hill products." And not surprisingly, the company gained a dominant share in Texas's lucrative textbook marketplace. Educational Marketer dubbed McGraw-Hill's campaign in the state "masterful," identifying standards-based reform and the success of McGraw-Hill's "scientifically valid" phonics-based reading program as the source of the company's eventual triumph in Texas.