The Bush Education Legacy

December 18, 2008

With a new administration preparing to enter the White House, I got to thinking about what we have seen change over the past eight years in federal education policy. There are some who argue that one of President Bush's most lasting legacies from his time in office will be his impact on K-12 and Higher Education. The President himself agreed with this assessment, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act as one of the "most significant achievements of my administration."

So what exactly will this legacy entail? It's hard to know for certain right now, since so much may change when the Obama administration tackles No Child Left Behind reauthorization, but there are at least a few lasting impacts that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

One lasting impact is a heightened federal role in K-12 education policy. It's easy to forget just how tenuous was the authority and political support for the federal government to actively shape local and state level school policy. Take a guess as to when the following statement appeared in the Republican Party's National Platform:

“Our formula is as simple as it is sweeping: the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula... That is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning.”

1944? 1960? 1980?

Nope. How about 1996... just five years before President Bush took office and ramped up the federal government's "meddling" in schools to an unprecedented degree.

So historians will not be exaggerating in the future when they say that President Bush (43) was fundamentally responsible for ushering in a new, major role for the feds in school improvement efforts. But there's more to his legacy in education than simply ratcheting up the federal role in schools, there's the vital matter of how the feds are now involved in school policy that is equally paradigmatic.

The easiest way to characterize this fundamental shift in how the federal government approaches its role in improving education is to recall one of the best instances of rhetoric President Bush used during his time in office. Credit his speech writers for using the phrase, the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that plagued our schools. Put simply, perhaps the greatest legacy that President Bush will leave behind in K-12 education policy is the now-firmly entrenched role of the federal government in holding schools accountable for student success, no frills, no excuses. Prior to 2001, only a handful of states expected schools to show returns on public tax investments by way of student learning gains - now, school level accountability is the rule, even if an oft-derided one.

Courtesy of the Education Trust, I want to leave two images in closing to show exactly what President Bush was referring to by the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that absolutely must be eviscerated if all children in America are to receive the quality of educational opportunity they both need and deserve. You can compare and draw the conclusions for yourself by picturing, in your mind's eye, what kind of school handed out each of the two assignments:

Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.