With only 12 days left in his presidency, nearly every item on George W. Bush’s schedule marks a milestone for him.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush flew to the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia to deliver what he said was “my last policy speech as president of the United States.” It was a full-throated defense of the No Child Left Behind law that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Bush signed the law seven years ago Jan. 8, after marshaling bipartisan support for it. The measure “has forever changed America’s school systems,” he argued.
The flight to Philly also had a poignant end-of-an-era feel – or an almost-end feel – to it. Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel told members of the media traveling with the president that the 23-minute trip would be the next-to-last scheduled flight Bush would take on Air Force One as president. While waiting for the president to get on and off the plane, Bush administration staffers posed for pictures in front of the sparkling blue 747.
It was hard to miss the contrast with the president’s successor. Bush’s talk in the inner-city school auditorium began minutes after Barack Obama began a major speech at George Mason University in Virginia about the economic after-effects of the Bush years. President-elect Obama’s talk drew major attention from the national media. Bush’s talk did not.
But the subject clearly is one Bush cares about. He told the audience of students that his first presidential speech also was on education. “I hope you can tell education is dear to my heart,” he said.
During the talk, the president gave a shout out to Mr. Obama’s Education secretary designate, Arne Duncan. “We are fortunate he has agreed to take on this position,” Bush said. "We wish him the very best.”
In his 28-minute defense of No Child Left Behind, Bush argued it was a good law that “needs to be strengthened and reauthorized by Congress.” He also called it “one of the most sweeping education reforms in a long, long time.” Critics say the legislation is intrusive and underfunded by Congress.
Before the speech, the president and Mrs. Bush visited three classrooms. In the second-grade classroom of teacher Cheryl Feldscher, while 20 members of the press corps waited for the Bushes to arrive, sweating under the TV lights that had been set up, the students dutifully said, “Good morning, press.”
Mrs. Bush entered the room first with a quick “hi, everybody.” The president delivered a quick but pointed message about the value of reading. “Make sure you read more than you watch TV,” he said. “With all due respect to the TV cameras, you learn more reading than from TV.”
The president then offered to answer students' questions. One student asked about the number of bathrooms in the White House. Bush’s response: “A lot of them. It’s a big place.”
At the end of the classroom visit, the students presented the president with letters they had written. He went to each student’s desk and bent down to accept the documents. Mrs. Bush said, “We will send you letters back.” Then the president, Mrs. Bush, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings posed for a picture with the class.