George W. Bush is writing a sequel to his big education act. The No Child Left Behind law was signed almost a decade ago, with overwhelming approval from Congress (384 to 45 in the House and 91 to 8 in the Senate). Now, amid a bipartisan effort to gut its accountability measures, the former President is quietly pushing new education-reform initiatives aimed at improving and empowering school principals, who too often lack the training or authority to effectively run their schools. And once again, he’s approaching this massive education problem by blurring political lines.
I was invited in my role as TIME’s education columnist to sit in on a small meeting this week that Bush organized in New York City, and I was struck by the roster of advisers he had assembled to guide the George W. Bush Institute’s education work. The group included some big names in the education non-profit world as well as leaders of traditional public schools and charter schools. But by my informal count, most of the 10 people around the table were Democrats, including Clinton and Obama administration alums. “He cares about education deeply, and he gets it,” one staunchly Democratic education consultant, who now works with the institute, told me. The former President has already recruited officials from his administration as well as liberal stalwarts like Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust and Democratic education leaders like former North Carolina Governor James Hunt.
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Education has long been a personal priority for Bush, who has said he ran for Texas governor in large part to improve the schools there. Now his institute is fighting hard against America’s complacency about our schools. This fall, for instance, it released a Global Report Card showing that even the wealthiest districts in the country, including Palo Alto, Calif., and the suburbs surrounding Washington, score no better on math, science and reading tests than average schools in 25 developed countries. The institute is looking at complicated and controversial issues such as education finance, teacher pensions and middle schools. These are genuine — and generally overlooked — problems.
But Bush’s decision to focus on school leadership is a particularly interesting choice because it’s an issue more likely to land you on the op-ed page being lambasted than on the front page being praised. When you look around the country, it’s pretty clear that changes are coming to how teachers are selected and prepared and the basic outline of those changes are clear. But when it comes to school leadership, there are a few scattered pockets of excellence — innovative or well-regarded training programs run by universities or non-profits — but in general it’s a brownfield with little systemic attention and plenty of thorny politics.
Bush said at the meeting that he wants to ensure accountability for principals and better “align responsibility and authority” in policy and practice. That’s a concise take on the complicated and sprawling issue of school leadership and management, but it tightly sums up the challenge. At the conference room overlooking midtown Manhattan, Bush asked different school leaders about what they can and can’t do to make decisions about budgets, personnel and other school issues and engaged in some lively back and forth about different diagnoses of the problems and possible solutions. He also wanted to know whether they have enough information on student achievement and can act on it and whether today’s accountability systems were sufficient or were being watered down. He didn’t come out and say it, but it seemed clear that the abandonment of tough accountability measures in Washington was on his mind.
Bush told the group he wanted his education work to be practical with measurable results and “not just think-tank stuff.” He also made clear he wants to change the system without getting mired in politics. At the beginning of the discussion, he asked the group: “How can you be active in public policy without being immersed in politics?” It was a largely rhetorical question and left unsaid was the complicating factor of being a former President of the United States whose political legacy is still being hotly debated.
The education debate about George W. Bush is loaded with irony. The same President who is attacked by the left for pushing through tax cuts that benefited the wealthy is being assailed by the right for education policies that focus on disadvantaged students allegedly at the expense of high-achieving ones. But Bush remains steadfast. He considers No Child Left Behind a piece of civil rights legislation, and while his party is running from his education record, some education leaders are starting to run toward his institute and its work. Several non-profit leaders told me that they believe his institute can have an important impact on education if people can come together and find a way to achieve the former President’s goal — i.e., influencing policy without getting immersed in politics. That’s never easy in education and is especially tricky given the strong feelings that exist about the President. He’s clearly game for trying. Now that he is out of office, the question is, will the education world meet him in the middle?