Skip to main content

What now for schools in America?

They wanted Gore but Bush won, and now US teachers must face his education policies, writes Mike Baker.

Now the interminable counting and legal challenges are over, American teachers have joined the Gore Democrats in weeping tears of frustration. Both main teacher unions - the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - pledged their support and hundreds of thousands of dollars to Al Gore's campaign.

Now they must develop a strategy to deal with what they feared most: a Republican president with a radical agenda for schools. Their only comfort is that with a Republican majority of only five in the House of Representatives and a deadlocked Senate, Bush will struggle to get controversial measures through.

Yet on education issues, George W Bush is not a typical Republican. As he has shown as self-styled "education governor" in Texas, he is a radical, not a conservative. He favours private management of schools, not wholesale privatisation. He believes in local autonomy, but backed by federal accountability and intervention.

In the past the conservative Republicans have championed local control of schools and hostility to the federal government. Indeed, when Bob Dole was their presidential candidate, he went so far as to threaten to shut down the federal department of education altogether.

There have been no such threats from Bush. Quite the opposite. He has promised to increase federal spending on education, most specifically with a $5 billion (pound;3.4bn) reading programme for five to seven-year-olds. He also plans to move the Head Start pre-school programme into the education department.

Mr Bush has also revealed a penchant for intervention at state level. To English eyes, the American school system is very decentralised. States are fiercely independent of federal influence, and local school boards resent interference from state governments.

Yet in Texas, Governor Bush has presided over reforms which mirror the centralising of power seen in the national curriculum reforms in England and Wales. Texas is a pioneer of the so-called "standards-based reform" which is sweeping most states. You could almost say that Governor Bush was the Kenneth Baker of American education reform.

So Bush has presided over a policy which has undermined the autonomy of schools by setting state-wide standards for core subjects. It has handcuffed teachers to these standards by imposing a centralised testin regime known as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Schools which perform poorly in the TAAS are called to account.

Bush would like to require all states to impose annual tests in maths and reading. It is an approach which is still relatively new to American teachers, who do not yet have to deal with national exams or inspectors.

Bush has made much of his Texas school reforms. But there was a major wobble during the campaign when an independent report cast doubt on their claims to have both improved test scores and narrowed the gap between deprived pupils and others.

Bush's most radical proposal builds on this idea of identifying, and then penalising, "failing" schools. It also raises the highly controversial spectre of education vouchers.

Bush has said that federal funding should follow success, not failure. So where an under-performing school fails to improve for three years, low-income parents can take their share of federal school funding as a form of voucher to "buy" private tuition or to pay school fees.

If President Bush can get this idea through Congress and past the inevitable legal challenges - and it is a big "if" - it would represent a dramatic shift to the right for American education policy.

Bush is also a champion of charter schools. These publicly-funded, privately-managed schools are attracting interest in Britain. Bush wants to double the number of charter schools to 4,000 within two years. Critics say a similar rapid expansion in Texas led to the state's charter schools closing down at twice the national rate.

"Dubya" is proud of his Texas education reforms and hopes to emulate his father, who campaigned in 1988 on a promise to be the "education president".

Unlike his father, George W will arrive at the White House with a suitcase already crammed with education policies. But he will need all his political contacts and behind-the-scenes skills to get them implemented.

Yet legislative change is only one part of an American president's influence. Perhaps more significant is the notion of the presidency as "bully pulpit". In this respect, with his undoubted enthusiasm for school reforms, Bush could have great influence.

When they have finished wiping away the tears over all that money poured down the drain of Al Gore's campaign, the teacher unions will have to prepare themselves for ideological struggle.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent of BBC News

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you