Bush says education achievement gap is ‘scandalous’
George Curry | 4/18/2014, 9:41 p.m. | Updated on 4/18/2014, 10:29 p.m.
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; President Lyndon B. Johnson, former Illinois Sen. and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and former Sen. 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 Supreme Court with two 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 state-wide 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.