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The Original Education President
Reagan's ABCs.


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Chester E. Finn Jr.

As every journalist and pundit in the land struggles to take Ronald Reagan’s measure and appraise his legacy, several have asked me to reflect on his impact on American education.

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With one exception, it was subtle, but it was also profound. Subtle because education was not a topic that President Reagan spent a lot of time on, talked about often, or devoted much personal attention to. He didn’t visit a lot of schools. He didn’t give a lot of speeches on the subject nor summon congressional leaders and governors to ponder the next big program or policy. Indeed, he never sought to don the mantle of “education president”, as all of his successors have done. Yet he and his administration created a climate of expectation and agitation about education that virtually obliged his successors to make it a centerpiece of their presidencies.

It was on Ronald Reagan’s watch that “the Sixties and Seventies” ended for American education, both literally and philosophically, and we entered a new era that differs in four fundamental ways:

We no longer settle for promises but demand results and aren’t satisfied with more programs if they don’t lead to learning. Rather than gauging the education system’s value by how much money goes in the door we ask whether the kids coming out have acquired the requisite skills and knowledge.

Instead of focusing single-mindedly on “equality of opportunity,” we also look for quality and for “learning gaps” to narrow.

Whereas we once assumed that educators would do right by kids, now we know that their interests often diverge and therefore insist on “civilian control” of education and enhancing the role and leverage of parents. Power is shifting from producers to consumers and choices are proliferating in the education marketplace.

We’re less apt to suppose that children learn “naturally” and have rediscovered that adults have something to teach them. Hence we set standards, prescribe curricula and test to see whether the kids have learned what the grown-ups judge they need to know. (This one hasn’t hit the colleges yet but it will.)

Nobody would claim that Reagan caused all that to happen but it’s impossible to picture it occurring with Jimmy Carter in the White House and hard to imagine either “standards-based” reform or “choice-based reform” gaining the traction that both now have if we hadn’t shifted American’s education gears between 1981 and 1989.

The biggest symbol of that shift was “A Nation at Risk,” the epochal 1983 report issued by a blue-ribbon commission named by Reagan’s first secretary of education, Terrel H. (Ted) Bell. Nobody expected the impact that it had–indeed, Bell went the commission route partly in frustration with a White House that didn’t seem much interested in education and murmured about abolishing Bell’s own department (which had only just come into existence during Carter’s last year and symbolized “big government” to many Reaganites).

The commission was uncommonly eloquent and forthright in telling America that it had a big problem with the quality and effectiveness of its schools and had to do something about that or else imperil its future. But its report did not just make waves; it also caught a wave of anxiety and criticism that had been building.

Within a few years, the National Governors Association had made education reform its top priority. Governors like Tom Kean, Dick Riley, Bill Clinton, Lamar Alexander, Bob Graham, and Mark White were struggling to gain more leverage over their states’ schools in order to redirect them. Business leaders became involved with education as never before. Bill Bennett moved into the Education secretary’s corner office and found it a bully pulpit for nudging, criticizing, surprising, and leading. People stopped talking about scrapping the agency and instead began asking whether all those federal programs were having the impact that they should and whether a bit more sunlight on the education system’s results might not help. (In the corner of the Department that I occupied, we focused on gathering better data and rekindling the National Assessment of Educational Progress.)

At the Humanities Endowment, Lynne Cheney was advancing similar ideas. Even the National Science Foundation chimed in from time to time.

Reagan allowed, encouraged, and endorsed all this and his White House didn’t meddle or try to control. Young journalists to whom I’ve spoken in the past few days cannot imagine an Education Department not micromanaged from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but the president’s way (at least in his second term) was to select people he trusted to do the right thing and give them their head so long as they did it. Bill Bennett selected his own strong team. (Other members included Bill Kristol, John Walters, Marion Blakey, Pete Wehner, Laura Ingraham, Madeline Will, Gary Bauer.) He crafted his own legislative agenda. He gave speeches that said what was on his mind. He traveled where he thought he needed to be. Right on, said the White House.

By the time Reagan left office, U.S. education had been transformed, not yet in its operations but in its aspirations; not so much in its effectiveness as in the country’s insistence that it become more effective. By 1989, George H. W. Bush practically had to declare that he would be the “education president.” And that parade of governors began to come to Washington to help reshape and redirect it: Alexander to work with Bush, then Clinton joined by Riley, and now another prominent “education ex-governor” in George W. Bush.

Yes, there’s an irony here. Reagan’s legacy includes a larger role for the federal government itself in education than he could have imagined, perhaps larger than he would have liked. We cannot yet know how this will work out. But there’s no gainsaying that American education, especially K-12 education, changed as much on Reagan’s watch as did the map of Europe.

A senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester E. Finn Jr. served as assistant secretary of education for research and improvement, and counselor to the secretary, from 1985 to 1988.



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