Amid the monumental advancements celebrated during last week’s Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library, George W. Bush’s little noticed reminder of “the tyranny of low expectations” highlighted a shift in attitudes toward accountability in public education.
Texans have largely abandoned one of the weapons championed by Bush in the fight against that tyranny — frequent, high-stakes testing — marking yet another way in which the Bush era in Texas seems a distant memory. That once-popular standardized testing has become anathema to much of the public — so much so that it has become a political weapon in the current gubernatorial campaign.
The breadth of current public opposition to K-12 testing in the public schools is a marked change from the mythic era of good feeling in Texas politics presided over by then-Gov. Bush, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Speaker of the House Pete Laney. Those good feelings included warm fuzzies for Bush’s education policies and certainly helped in getting him elected president. But attitudes captured in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that the good feelings toward accountability through testing have gone the way of those friendly weekly breakfasts shared by the Big Three way back when.
In the 2013 session, in a rebuke to Bush’s reforms, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to reduce the number of standardized tests required to graduate from Texas public high schools to five from 15. In the June 2013 UT/TT Poll, as the session came to a close, we asked Texas voters whether they approved of this change. Overall, 60 percent of Texans expressed support, and while we often note the partisan structure underlying most public opinion in Texas, support for test reduction was broad and bipartisan, accounting for 58 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of conservatives and 63 percent of liberals.
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In February 2014, when we examined a range of proposals that might improve public education quality in the state, 64 percent of respondents said that reducing the number of standardized tests would be an effective route. Again, the lack of partisan structure was notable: 61 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats agreed that cutting tests would help public education in Texas.
The public’s rejection of frequent testing is one more sign of the changes in the Texas Republican Party since Bush’s rise. Education was once a plank of Bush’s successful challenge to Ann Richards in 1994, and in short order became part of the fabric of his “compassionate conservatism.”
One must be steadfastly earnest not to see some irony in George W. Bush taking the stage in a building dedicated to Lyndon Johnson to flag the abandonment of his own signature social policy, while the nominal inheritors of the Texas GOP either left the continent to avoid the historic gathering, or hamfistedly attempted to use the event to generate evidence to convict Democrat Wendy Davis as President Obama’s candidate.
Bush’s reminders about the broad strokes of his approach to education policy, delivered as part of an event attempting to reshape the legacy of LBJ, also highlighted just how much an element of Bush’s own legacy has slipped in the eyes of the public and even the Republican Party. Perhaps it was not so ironic to hear compassionate conservatism eulogized at the Johnson Library after all.