Bush was hands-on for education, healthcare; hands-off for planet

No Child Left Behind and Medicare expansion were bold strokes. On global warming, he moved glacially.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Education president? A student at PS 76 in New York whispers to George W. Bush during the president’s 2007 visit.

In domestic policy, President Bush leaves a deep imprint on public schools, healthcare, and the twin issues of energy and the environment. Synopses are below.

Education reform

The No Child Left Behind Act, forged amid bipartisanship, took effect just a year into the Bush presidency. Groundbreaking in its promise, it proved heartbreaking, to many, in its implementation.

"The key legacy is that it has focused the nation's attention on closing the achievement gap," says Michael Petrilli, a policy expert at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former official in the US Education Department under Mr. Bush. But "it's caused a backlash to testing and standards-based reform."

Concerned about what Bush termed the "soft bigotry of low expectations," NCLB supporters aimed to hold schools accountable for academic progress among all students. Prior to its mandate, many states did not test regularly to see if students were reaching math and reading standards, nor were they required to show scores by categories such as race and income level.

It's arguable whether testing – and the interventions when schools fail to meet improvement targets – has helped struggling students enough. Reading and math scores are higher at the lower end of the achievement scale, and some racial gaps have narrowed. But analysts say such gains were under way before the law took effect.

Critics say schools now are focusing too narrowly on test preparation and that the law has increased dropout rates among minorities. The government, moreover, has not adequately funded NCLB, they charge. The law's requirement that all children have "high quality" teachers was a civil rights breakthrough, but it also stirred controversy about criteria that not everyone agreed were the best measures of teacher quality.

Many conservatives cite NCLB as the poster child for big-government intrusion and call for a return to local control.

While people from across the political spectrum want changes in NCLB, its core principles retain wide support, including from Bush's successor.

– Stacy Teicher Khadaroo

Bush leaves a mixed legacy on healthcare. With Congress, he expanded Medicare benefits to include prescription drugs and doubled funding for community health centers. But like presidents before him, he did not resolve systemic woes in the healthcare system.

During his watch, the number of uninsured Americans rose from about 40 million to 47 million, and healthcare costs soared at rates double and triple that of inflation. Average healthcare premiums are 100 percent higher than in 2000, making it harder for businesses to continue providing workers with comprehensive health insurance.

Though heralded by many, Medicare expansion to include prescription-drug coverage for the elderly remains controversial. The program did make it easier for 7 million seniors to buy medication, cutting the share of seniors who lacked such coverage from 33 percent to 6 percent, according to government figures.

Critics say the program is too complex for many seniors to navigate and leaves too many paying high out-of-pocket drug costs. At $40 billion a year, it is also more expensive than it should be primarily because the government cannot negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for discounts, they say.

Funding infusions for community health centers in medically underserved areas allowed a doubling of the number of people the centers serve, to 18 million, reports the National Association of Community Health Centers. As many as 58 million Americans live in areas where medical care is still not available, according to a recent study, but even critics credit Bush for continuing to expand community health centers.

– Alexandra Marks

Environment and energy

Global warming, and its tightly coupled energy-policy dimension, is arguably the highest-profile issue to frame assessments of Bush's environmental and energy legacy.

Rather than adhere to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's insistence on actual emission reductions, Bush opted to set a US target for greenhouse-gas "intensity" – a measure of emissions per given amount of economic activity. Later, his administration blocked California's bid to curtail carbon dioxide output from cars as part of that state's broad plan to combat climate change.

During his tenure, he remained a friend of fossil-fuel-based industries, opening some offshore areas to oil exploration and millions of acres of once-protected lands to oil and gas drilling. Older factories, power plants, and refineries were able to delay or avoid installing the latest pollution-control technology as a condition of plant expansions or upgrades, critics charge.

The Bush White House took no significant action to reduce global-warming-related emissions, says David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He sums up Bush's legacy on energy and the environment in two words: "overwhelmingly destructive."

Yet on some air-quality issues, Bush got tougher. Tighter emissions standards are in place for diesel-driven locomotives, tug boats, barges, and ferries, as well as for small gasoline engines in equipment like lawn mowers and snowblowers

Oceans will benefit from Bush's actions. He set aside more fragile marine areas for conservation than any leader in history. On international resource-conservation issues, the administration backed efforts to stem illegal logging and trafficking in wildlife, protect sharks and end destructive fishing practices, and add a new class of chemicals to the Montreal Protocol, among others, says Claudia McMurray, assistant secretary of State for oceans, environment, and science.

The White House is also poised to lay out a new policy on the Arctic. It will call for strong environmental safeguards in the fragile region, according to press reports.

Peter N. Spotts

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