Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Bush, GHW:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The George H.W. Bush Years: Business and Achievement

Early in his tenure, George H. W. Bush declared his intent to be an "education president" and began to raise expectations for elementary and secondary achievement. He used close links to the business community and its increasing focus on educational outcomes to advance the movement toward a "new accountability" based on standardized performance outcomes for all students. The groundwork for this idea had been laid in a report from the National Governors Association called Time for Results, released in 1986 under the chairmanship of Lamar Alexander, then governor of Tennessee. This report followed up on A Nation at Risk, released three years earlier, and proposed a deal between the levels of government. Schools would be released from many constraints of government regulation and in return would produce demonstrable gains in achievement. Schools were to be held accountable for their performance and would suffer consequences, including reductions in their newfound autonomy, if they did not improve. Such relaxation in regulations appealed to Bush and his desire to put a "kinder and gentler" face on his administration. The deregulation also appealed to the business community, which was looking for ways to spur innovation and improvement in the education sector.

The strong support of the business community, with its close focus on education, helped to generate broad support for many of the efforts during this administration. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, whom Vice President Bush had recommended for Reagan's late-term appointment, continued in that position but maintained a relatively low profile. The president, on the other hand, publicly engaged state and business leaders in the education reform effort. In June of his first year in office, he challenged the Business Roundtable, a group of large American companies focusing on America's competitiveness, to concentrate on improving education in the fifty states. Bush believed that the education crisis would not be solved at the national level, but, if the federal government promoted clear goals, a "thousand points of light" would emerge at the local level, creating a host of potential models to generate improvement in a system that was viewed largely as struggling and falling further behind international competition.

A renewed emphasis on performance outcomes was in part the result of declining achievement indicators in reading, coupled with increasing expenditures. Between 1980 and 1988, average student proficiency in reading as measured by NAEP had declined from 215.0 to 211.8 among nine-year-olds and from 258.5 to 257.5 among thirteen-year-olds. Similarly, between 1980 and 1990, average verbal SAT scores dropped from 424 to 422. (Over the same interval, scores on the mathematics portion of the SAT increased from 466 to 474.) Meanwhile, district expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance rose from $4,469 to $5,931 (in constant dollars)-a 33 percent increase. The increase in expenditures, which came mostly from state and local government (as the federal share of school revenues fell from 9.8 to 6.2 percent in these years), was directed largely at special education programs. It did not seem to improve reading achievement for students in regular education programs.


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Footnotes: The PDF version of this essay contains extensive footnotes that include numerous citations and supplementary text. For ease of reading, the footnotes are omitted from this version.


To view snapshots of the political context for the G.H.W. Bush administration, see Education Policymakers 1989-1992.