Bush reading initiative gets high marks

Texas' tough approach improves scores, bars passing of nonreaders

May 18, 1999|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,SUN STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. George W. Bush wants all Texas children to read by the end of the third grade, and he's asking teachers to begin reading early so as to "leave no group behind."

At the same time, the Republican governor's major legislative push this spring is to bar third-graders from promotion if they can't pass state reading tests.

This tough-love approach -- styled by Bush's campaign organization as part of his "compassionate conserva-tism" -- is becoming a hallmark as the governor prepares a run for president in 2000.

Several governors, including Parris N. Glendening in Maryland and Gray Davis in California, are trying to become education leaders. But the Texas governor has focused on reading, an interest that many doubt will translate into votes in a presidential race.

Bush, 52, launched the "Texas Reading Initiative" in January 1996, a year into his first term. He said he expected every child to read at grade level by age 9 -- at which formal state testing of pupils begins.

To do that, Bush targeted the early grades, requiring an "inventory" -- a simple oral test -- of reading skills for each pupil as early as kindergarten. He established "reading academies" for those identified as needing help.

He paid attention to reading research, much of it from laboratories on University of Texas campuses here and in Houston. He appointed a highly visible state reading "czar," a former lobbyist who answers an 800 "reading line" in Austin. And he enlisted business as a major player, not as a cheerleading bystander.

In a sense, Bush inherited his interest in education. His father, George Bush, liked to call himself the "education president." Barbara Bush, his mother, has had a long interest in literacy, and his wife, Laura, is a former teacher and librarian. His twin teen-age daughters attend public school in Austin.

Even Bush's dog, Spot Fetcher Bush, promotes his master's reading agenda. The English springer spaniel appears on Bush's Internet home page, declaring that he "loves to read" and recommending "cool books" for children.

"Bush has been very smart," says Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based compact of Southern and border states. "Texas is a state where the lieutenant governor and Legislature have a lot of power. The governor leads by personality, persuasiveness, the bully pulpit. Bush has taken an issue and stuck to it. He doesn't have 365 priorities, one for each day. I give him high marks."

At first glance, Bush has been successful. Scores have improved steadily in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS); last year, 1,048 of 6,875 schools were rated "exemplary."

Texas reading scores in the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress increased five points, to two points above the national (and Maryland) average. Black, white and Hispanic students in Texas scored higher than their peers in all other states with similar demographic profiles: Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico and New York.

'Smoke and mirrors'

But the governor has detractors on the left and right, and even conservatives are restive as he moves toward the political middle in preparation for a national campaign.

"It's all smoke and mirrors," says Garry Mauro, a former state land commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor whom Bush trounced with a 69 percent margin in last year's election. "Even his reading initiatives aren't original with him. He got them from [former Gov.] Ann Richards."

Mauro points out that Texas' nationally admired school testing program dates to 1984 -- Ross Perot's "no pass, no play" policy for participation in sports was part of it -- while a rewriting and simplification of the state's education code was already in progress on inauguration day 1995.

From the right comes criticism of a different sort.

In a conservative state, Bush has hewed to conservative positions, declaring that he wants people to "take responsibility for their lives and actions." He is an outspoken proponent of phonics, which he calls the "up-to-date science," and he insists that Texas teachers be trained in the phonics method.

He embraces "charters" -- publicly financed but privately operated schools, of which 128 are scattered across Texas. The governor has a bill in the Legislature this year that would establish a limited statewide voucher plan.

Too much givernment

But the conservative Texas Eagle Forum says there's too much government in Bush's initiatives. That includes the voucher plan, which the group opposes because voucher recipients would have to take state tests and adhere to other regulations.

"His being a favorite son and having a wonderful personality isn't enough," says Cathy Adams, a lobbyist for the Eagle Forum. "We're waiting for him to actually go beyond telling us what he believes and actually take a stand."

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