Texas Gov. George W. Bush, decrying the "moral chaos" that has infected some schools, today called for teaching students the difference between right and wrong and said that schools that prove persistently violent could be threatened with the loss of federal funds.
Using sweeping rhetoric, Bush spoke about the need to produce better citizens beginning in the classroom and for a greater presence of religion in schools. "I want to make a case for moral education," he said. "Teaching is more than training, and learning is more than literacy. Our children must be educated in reading and writing--but also in right and wrong."
The speech was clearly aimed at appealing to the right after Bush's earlier education policy speeches in New York and Los Angeles were received poorly by some conservatives, who accused him of, essentially, trying to play the part of national schools superintendent. But as with his other speeches, Bush continued to walk a fine political line. He is asserting a stronger federal role in education while promoting a theme--values-based education--that conservatives like.
Children must learn that character "gives direction to their gifts and dignity to their lives," he said in his remarks at the Northern White Mountain Chamber of Commerce. Some students, he said, had been so negatively affected by the moral relativism taught in most public schools that they refused to make negative judgments of the Holocaust.
"We must tell our children, with conviction and confidence, that the authors of the Holocaust were evil men, and the authors of the Constitution were good ones," he said. "That the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not a personal opinion but an eternal truth."
By emphasizing character, discipline and safety, Bush spoke about education in terms very different from his Democratic rivals, who have focused on classroom size, quality teachers and academic performance.
In his other education speeches, Bush called for making schools more accountable for poor performance and allowing parents of children at failing schools to use federal funds for alternatives, such as vouchers for private or charter schools. He said his education proposals are "bound by a thread of principle."
On the role of religion in schools, Bush said he would not explicitly encourage religious instruction. But he made a case for the voluntary expression of religion in schools and urged the teaching of commonly accepted values such as respect, civic duty and family commitment. Bush also said he would seek to reverse federal policies that prevent faith-based groups--churches, synagogues and mosques--from participating in after-school programs.
He said he would increase from $8 million to $25 million the amount of money the federal government spends on promoting character education, so schools can teach "the moral landmarks that guide a successful life." He also pledged to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal."
Bush said it was intolerable that many children attended unsafe schools with environments so disruptive they could not learn. "When children and teenagers go to school afraid of being bullied, or beat, or worse, it is the ultimate betrayal of adult responsibility," he said. "It communicates the victory of moral chaos."
He called for a lifetime ban on gun ownership for any juvenile found guilty of a gun felony, and he said he would create a partnership with the federal government and the states to prosecute students who bring guns to school. He also said he would propose legislation to protect teachers and school administrators from "junk" or "meritless" lawsuits "when they enforce reasonable rules."
But perhaps more controversial are provisions that would supersede the authority of local school boards on disciplinary and school safety matters. For instance, Bush suggests that the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, a $600 million-a-year program that assists 97 percent of the nation's school districts, lacks accountability. Citing news stories, Bush said schools have used money from the program on everything from fishing poles to puppet shows.
Under his proposal, Bush said schools would be required to show how they are reducing school violence and disruptions, and the results would be made public. In schools that remain "persistently dangerous," states and school districts would be required to let students transfer to other public schools. If no space could be found, any district that received federal safe-schools dollars would have to use that money to support a transfer to a private school.
Also, in schools that receive federal safe-school funds, teachers would be given the authority to remove disruptive students from class. "Only with the teacher's consent will these students be allowed to return," Bush said. "The days of timid pleading and bargaining with disruptive students must be over. Learning must no longer be held hostage to the brazen behavior of a few."
Democrats pounced, arguing among things, that school assaults have increased dramatically during Bush's governorship. And, they said, he has failed to enforce laws on the books in his state. For instance, Texas schools did not expel students involved in 850 violent acts, including 74 with handguns, who could have been ejected under the safe-schools act.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said Bush's proposal amounted to an abandonment of public education: "It seems like George W. Bush's idea of fixing our public schools is to walk away from the students and the schools that most need our help. When you strip away his shiny rhetoric . . . each 'big idea' is nothing more than a glorified voucher scheme which will only end up leaving a whole generation of children behind."
"He's laying out his own distinctive view, and it's not a party line view," said former education secretary William Bennett, who advised Bush on the speech. "Yeah, he's going to get criticized." But he said that Bush was not going to "pander" to anyone on the right or the left and that he has offered a "conservative, centrist position and eminently defensible."