POLITEX: HOW DOES BUSH STACK UP ON CHARACTER EDUCATION? George W. Bush gave his third education speech in Gorham, New Hampshire, this week, concentrating on school safety. He placed an emphasis upon increasing the penalty for juvenile gun offenses, bringing abstinence education up to the attention level of birth-control education, allowing volunteer religious expression in the classroom, and providing more money for character education, three times the current amount, in fact, from $8 million to $25 million.
As is the case with a number of Bush campaign themes, "character education," like "compassionate conservatism" is nothing new. Also like a number of his campaign themes, its roots can be traced back to his father's administration, in this case back to William Bennet, who was Secretary of Education under Dubya's father and is presently an education adviser on the campaign team. In the 80's Bennet led conservative groups in calling for a moral education, one that stresses "those values all Americans share." During the 90's, with its adherents calling themselves the more neutral "character education" movement, federal funding through the Improving America's Schools Act has been obtained for character education in 28 states, and 14 states have passed legislation calling for the teaching of character education in public schools. The movement in Texas has been strongest in Houston, given a big start by Jack Bowen, chairman of the board of Transco Energy Co. and a Bush campaign contributor, who offered to raise $2 million to get the district-wide mandated program off the ground.
The Houston character program, which eventually became the state program under Bush, focuses upon such "components of citizenship" as honesty and self-discipline, one for each of nine months in the school year. However, when the Houston character education plan was considered for adoption by the nearby Spring Branch school board in 1994, teachers were also asked to teach and model curiosity, organization, and a sense of humor as "life skills," which some teachers found to be personality traits, not universal values. Would someone without a sense of humor be reprimanded? And what about "self-discipline"? On the night the school board met and approved the plan, a parent suggested that "sexual abstinence before marriage" is "a moral and religious judgement," clearly not a universal value. In general, parents and teachers who were against the plan felt that the board was creating a value system for all of the teachers and students without the input of the diverse needs and beliefs of the teachers and parents within the district. School Board President Mark Ramsey replied, "If you start to abandon the virtues, the values that we have enumerated here, then you are leading your nation or your community or your country into total chaos."
In 1996 Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses sent out copies of "The Building Good Citizens for Texas-Resource Guide" to all of the schools in the state, "highly encouraging" all teachers to use it in the classroom. Created by the "Institute on American Values," a cover letter from Linus Wright, Chairman of the Institute, thanked the Houston school district for sharing "their materials and expertise." The 8 1/2 by 11, single-spaced booklet of 58 pages begins with a 1996 cover letter by Bush, himself, indicating that he hopes the classroom teacher would use the guides "to mold good citizens for Texas." In the first sentence of the short, three-paragraph letter, he forgets to capitalize the word "English." ("Our public schools in Texas must teach our children excellence in a core corriculum of basic subjects: english, math, science, and social science.") Since Governor Bush has pointed to his school reform efforts in Texas as a guide to what he would like to do on the national level, let's look at some selective examples that come to mind to determine how the governor, himself, would score on "character," as described in the "Resource Guide." Of course, you may want to consider other examples that occur to you, but these should get you started. There are 9 categories listed, with definitions. You can give each category a score of from 1 to ll if you're playing this game at home. The highest score is 99. (No one's perfect.)
1. "Honesty : trustworthiness, fairness, and straightforwardness of conduct." Forbes didn't think Bush was being straightforward when he said he couldn't make the recent New Hampshire debate because his wife was getting an award at SMU and he had made a previous commitment to be with her. Forbes opined that Bush would have made the forum if it had been called a "fund-raiser." Further, it looked like Bush had given an "excuse," not a "reason" for not attending the forum, according to a recent editorial in the "Toledo Blade."(__)
2." Responsibility: moral, legal, and mental accountability." Although Bush was required to report his sale of Harken Energy Corporation stock when it was sold on June 22, 1990, the SEC received word of the trade eight months late. Bush said the notice had been lost, according to "U.S. News," and the SEC dropped the case.(__)
3. "Compassion: empathy and respect for others in school, life, and career settings." At a Washington, D.C. Alfalfa Club roast in Feb. 1998, the "Washington Post" reported that Bush commented upon his future presidential platform: "I propose that every city have a telephone number 119 --for dyslexics who have an emergency."(__)
4. "Perseverance: persistence while encountering negative influences, forms of opposition, or discouragement." As we previously reported, Duby can't handle follow-up questions very well. A "Providence Journal" reporter wrote that Bush "rejected the idea of U.S. troops going to East Timor, but said he'd back a United Nations force. With U.S. troops in it? 'No, not with American troops.' Why not? 'Because I don't think that's appropriate use of American troops.' When I tried to follow up," [the reporter continues], Bush "said, 'The answer is: No American troops.'" [The reporter said] Bush had an "edge" to him. Bush gets angry when he encounters such "forms of opposition."(__)
5. "Loyalty: need to establish personal and career relationships and select causes based on positive ethical principles for which [students] can remain true." This is a real Catch-22 for Dubya. For example, his state's rights policy has allowed him to stay out of such battles as a Confederate flag over the capitol in South Carolina and the teaching of creationism in Kansas, while he was able to condemn a federal judge's halting of school vouchers in Cleveland, Ohio. However, when he was in New York, Bush neglected to consider his local government principle when he proposed that funds to the Brooklyn Museum of art be cut off for its controversial exhibition. This week a district judge ruled that it would be unconstitutional to do so.(__)
6. "Justice: fair and equitable behavior which is consistent with the laws and principles that govern a democratic society." While Bush vetoed a bill at the end of the Texas spring session that called for indigent defendents to be assigned a lawyer within 20 days of their arrest, Texas leads the nation in executions. Although the governor says there's no doubt in his mind that those who are executed are guilty, "in recent years the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld death sentences in at least three cases in which the defense lawyers slept during trial. The trial judge in one case reasoned that while the Constitution requires that a defendant be represented by a lawyer, it 'doesn't say the lawyer has to be awake,' " writes "Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights."(__)
7. "Self-Reliance: knowledge of skills, abilities, and impression on others." This is where the strutting arrogance part of Dubya comes in. Some think it's cute, some think it's Texan, some think it's immature, but "Talk" reporter Tucker Carlson thinks it could translate into a bumper sticker: "George W. Bush: So Secure He Doesn't Care What You Think of Him."(__)
8. Self-Disciplined: the strength of mental and moral courage to accomplish tasks, manage time, and relate effectively with others." We're told that Bush is so self-discplined that he can repeat the same stump speech over and over, day after day, and stay on task. The governor has said, "the speech can go 15 minutes or it can go 45 minutes," depending upon how much time he has, how the audience behaves, and what topics are appropriate for the locale. Howeve, he is most comfortable with something he has worked on day after day and knows by heart. When he gives a new speech, such as his third education speech, he carefully reads off the teleprompter and leaves the Q & A to surrogates; William Bennett, for his latest education speech.(__)
9. "Integrity: adherence to a code of conduct necessary for successful performance in the workplace and in [one's] personal life." This is the most subjective category in the "Resource Guide." Bush tells us that he wants to bring a code of conduct to the White House that will bring back integrity to the oval office. However, that's the future and those are words. Looking at his past, the basis for his code of conduct is unclear in both the workplace (questions about his business dealings and questions about his use of office) and his personal life (a history of drunkeness into his 40's and a question about cocaine use prior to age 26).(__)
While our Bush grade total of 38 suggests we wouldn't want the governor to model the "Guide's" character elements in our classroom, perhaps the idea of teaching character in the classroom is too subjective to begin with, too dependent upon the biases and prejudices of the evaluator, not to mention the local school board, too...undemocratic. 11/3/99
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