Clearly, a major centerpiece of George W. Bush’s success as Governor of Texas and a significant plank in the platform for his Presidential candidacy was his leadership of the Texas public education reforms in accountability and standards of the mid to late 1990’s, and nowhere were these reforms in more evidence than in Houston, which was recognized as the best urban school district in America in 2002. But now, as we move to the next level of accountability, this reform “miracle” is being called into question by discrepancies leading to allegations of fraud in dropout reporting as well as the preliminary results of the new, more rigorous, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, which, depending on your perspective, reflect either a lack of true student achievement progress in many areas or a backsliding in progress previously reported.Recently, this debate was sharpened with the release of the results in five major U. S. cities of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, in which Houston participated on a voluntary basis, and the results were mixed at best. On one hand, I agree with many who say that these five major urban school districts deserve praise rather than criticism for their courage in submitting to the testing. However, it is very difficult for me to find anything positive about the Houston results, particularly the reading proficiency levels for the fourth- and eighth-grade students in the Houston Independent School District, which were scored at 18% and 17%, respectively. When over 80% of our children cannot read proficiently by the third grade, it is a travesty of enormous proportions, particularly when compared with the TAKS reading test results (even after a significant standard deviation adjustment), their comparison with national norm-referenced test scores, and the wide gap between scores of white and minority children. To compound this tragedy, we know how to fix it—the education establishment knows how to teach teachers how to teach at-risk children how to read at a very early age. We also know all too well the current deficiencies in teacher preparation and how to fix them, as Secretary Rod Paige has so well illustrated in his first two reports to Congress on meeting the highly qualified teacher challenge. What is missing is the will to do so.
The fact that Houston scored comparably well with other urban districts just won’t cut it. Houston, not to mention Texas as a whole, can’t plead ignorance—it has known of the problem and the required solutions for at least ten years. My question: When are we going to come to grips with the fact that this problem deserves nothing less than the equivalent of a declaration of war by urban school districts on the illiteracy of our young children?
As we move deeper into the “funny season” of Presidential election politics, it becomes increasingly more important to stay tightly focused on the principles of moral clarity that have defined Bush foreign policy since 9-11. The strategy of those who oppose the Bush Doctrine, particularly the policy of pre-emption, is to attack the so-called “soft underbelly” of the rationale for such pre-emption—the intelligence that identifies the relevant security threat. By attacking the credibility of the basis for the war on terror, or its timing and selection of targets, they hope to undermine the policy. Senator (and Presidential candidate) Bob Graham said it—we need to know not only whether or not Iraq had or was developing weapons of mass destruction after the fact, but whether this should have been a reason for the timing of our strikes against it. This is second-guessing at its most irresponsible because it has a chilling impact on bold leadership in countering terrorism. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it best, as I paraphrase—the penalty for having been proven right and not acting will be unforgivable, many times worse than having been proven wrong and acting.Speaking of Blair, when have you heard more statesmanship or more clarity of moral purpose than in his recent address to the joint session of Congress? Dare I say that it was Churchillian or Thatcherite? It was right up there with them, and there were some memorable excerpts, such as: “September 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue”; “there never was a time when the power of America was so necessary or so misunderstood”; “our ultimate weapon is not our guns but our beliefs”; “ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit”; “I don’t believe you can compromise with this new form of terrorism”; “there is no more dangerous theory in international politics than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitive powers”; and “why us? Why America? Because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do…..and our job is to be there with you”.
It is amazingly ironic that this moment in history for American leadership comes at a time when we so imperfectly practice and often reject the natural right principles on which we base our liberating foreign policy. Which is why it is doubly important and timely to remind the demagogues and ourselves loudly and often that we occupy the moral high ground in this conflict. End of story.
Former Houstonian John Moores, currently Chairman of the University of California Board of Regents, hit upon an age-old problem in a recent op/ed essay, one that has vexed any number of Texas Higher Education Coordinating Boards and “blue ribbon commissions”—how to bring strategic order to the State’s system of higher education. There have been various plans advanced over the years by well-intentioned people, probably the most ambitious of which was developed by a commission led by Larry Temple in the 1980’s. It offered two alternatives—a functional and a geographic structure for higher education institutions. But like all other such proposals, it went nowhere. Why? Several reasons seem prominent (all of which I encountered when serving a six-year term on the board of one of our four-year universities): (1) intense regional competition for economic development and research, (2) board appointments are largely driven by school loyalty, (3) board members are or soon become provincial in their outlook and “boosterism” is the expectation of the alumni, (4) let’s face it–a certain level of anti-intellectualism is alive and well in Texas, and (5) politically, higher education access always trumps excellence. I could give many examples of these, but you get the point.Rather than spend more time and effort with top-down restructuring plans, we should be making bold moves toward marketizing the system, as some have suggested and as some other states are piloting. Market-based tuition is a good start, but we should be much bolder, as in spinning off entire departments and/or colleges of university systems as stand-alone schools, with certain services provided by the “parent” institution on a contract basis. Over time, this would produce a much better allocation of resources based on customer demand and preferences (and in the process probably eliminate much of the nonsense that now passes for meaningful curriculum), ultimately result in a re-structuring of delivery systems commensurate with the needs of the customers, and I would bet that much of this would eventually align itself along functional and geographic lines. The trade-off, of course, is state support, but why should the state bureaucracy dominate the governance of our flagship universities in exchange for 20% of their total funding? And when 75% of the parents of students at the University of Texas at Austin earn over $100,000 annually, why do they need the state subsidy anyway?
Frankly, I believe marketization is in many respects inevitable, because it will be forced by economics, not just in Texas, but throughout higher education, particularly the “flagships”. On a per student basis, the state appropriation to the University of California at Berkeley is three times that at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, and there is no way the gap can be closed without unacceptable concessions in excellence, which, ironically, would run counter to the primary reason for closing the gap! And the bottom line is that there is no long term economic growth without centers of excellence in higher education.
A year or so from now, anyone looking for a pivotal date for the U. S. economic and market turnaround should remember May 5, 2003, the date of President Bush’s speech in Little Rock, of all places. It was an almost textbook treatment of the economics of small business and the impact of supply side tax policy in laymen’s terms, complete with living examples, and it was followed shortly thereafter by the passage of the tax cut bill. Watershed stuff. And, by the way, we have some catching up to do to in tax reform boldness—Russia’s flat tax is two years old and working wonders, and has now been followed by Ukraine, Slovakia, Estonia, and Latvia. This, at least as much as foreign policy, is what differentiates New Europe from Old Europe, as France and Germany will soon learn.