For Republican presidential candidates planning to run against Hillary Clinton, the critique of her record these days often begins and ends with Benghazi and her email server. This is partly because these are so damning but partly because there’s a near-universal assumption that Clinton has no domestic record to run against. After all, her health care initiative famously failed.
Like many things that are generally believed, however, this is simply not true. In fact, as chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, Hillary Clinton undertook one of the most dramatic policy initiatives in America back when she was the state’s first lady. That effort helped push her husband into the front ranks of Democratic governors, paving the way for his presidency.
Hillary’s education plan was not cheap. It called for what Bill Clinton himself admitted was “the biggest tax increase for education in Arkansas history,” a 1 percentage-point increase in the state sales tax. Of course, proportionately this was paid more by the poor than the rich. Understandably, all Hillary Clinton biographies prominently feature her role in enacting the Clintons’ education plan and their claim that they were “keeping faith” with the state’s children.
And Hillary’s role was central. She helped develop the plan, and her personal intervention and testimony before the assembly committee that held the bill up is what pushed it through. That performance led state representative Lloyd George to remark that Arkansas had elected the “wrong Clinton.” It followed on her meetings in each of the state’s 75 counties to drum up support for the bill. Later Hillary’s intense personal lobbying would guide the bill through the legislature’s main session, where it passed by one vote.
That much of the story is Arkansas political legend, and every Hillary biographer, whether of the left or the right, writes about it.
What’s curious is that no biographer or journalist has ever bothered to examine the official data on what resulted. Those records tell a crucial story: one of calamitous failure.
To understand how and why the Clinton education plan proved so flawed, let’s backtrack.
The immediate impetus for the education reform campaign the Clintons announced in 1983 was a state judicial ruling calling for greater equity in spending on primary and secondary schools. That decision, along with two subsequent Arkansas supreme court rulings on the subject, would become the focus of most state education legislation for the next quarter-century.
It’s clear from their statements at the time that the Clintons understood the importance of improving Arkansas schools. Bill Clinton argued that with factory jobs going overseas, the state could no longer rely on manufacturing and needed a more skilled workforce. But Arkansas students were scoring poorly on national exams.
The Clintons’ response focused on spending. That’s perhaps not surprising since it’s what education experts like Jonathan Kozol (a hero then and now to progressive reformers) were emphasizing. That spending on education and performance are not correlated was rarely acknowledged in the early 1980s. And it’s still only grudgingly admitted. When I spoke at length about education reform under the Clintons with Mike Beebe, a later two-term Democratic governor who helped shepherd education bills out of the state senate in the 1980s, he managed to discourse on education for close to half an hour without ever talking about anything except spending.
And in 1983 Arkansas was spending comparatively little on schools. The state ranked 48th of 50 in disbursement of funds for education. Kindergarten was still optional and absent in many rural districts. Moreover, focusing on spending and narrowing the differences in the amounts provided for students was not simply something the state’s high court had called for but was consistent with Hillary Clinton’s ideological background as an adviser to the left-leaning Children’s Defense Fund.
However, increasing spending—especially in poorer areas—was not all that was proposed. The Clintons’ plan also called for increased funding for advanced courses at high schools. A public-school choice system was presented, but genuine charter schools were deliberately left out. Then there was one more thing added for political reasons.
Cleverly realizing that a proposal of a massive tax increase had to be matched to something perceived as adding value and not just cost, the Clintons demanded that all public school teachers in the state take and pass a minimum skills test.