For nearly 30 years—at least since Bill Bennett’s tenure as secretary of education and Lamar Alexander’s as governor of Tennessee—education-minded conservatives at both national and state levels have embraced a two-part school reform strategy, focused equally on rigorous standards and parental choice. Recent events have frayed that coalition, but it’s not too late to stitch it back together.
First, a bit of history. In the 1970s, U.S. education policy was all about “equity,” inclusion, and funding and its reformist zeal came from the left, save for noble but isolated exceptions such as Milton Friedman.
Few deny that the equity agenda did some good, especially for disabled and minority youngsters, but the concomitant neglect of academic achievement proved costly. Though the College Board didn’t acknowledge it until 1975, SAT scores had peaked a decade earlier and were in free fall. Every newspaper seemed to bring word of another teacher strike. Adult authority was in decline, goofy curricular schemes were ascendant—and Jimmy Carter decided that his top education priority would be creation of a new federal agency to reward the NEA for its support in the ‘76 election.
In the blunt words of chronicler Tom Toch (then with U.S. News, now with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), “the 1970’s left public education in a shambles.”
Fast forward just three years to A Nation At Risk (1983) which powerfully stated that American K-12 education was tanking. Ronald Reagan concurred. And by then, a series of governors, many of them Republican, many in the South, had reached the same conclusion on their own. They understood that the future vitality of their states depended on a major overhaul of their education systems. Alexander, for example, proposed his “Better Schools Program” to the Tennessee legislature months ahead of the national commission report—and, as chairman of the National Governors Association in the mid-eighties, had that organization embark on a comprehensive, multi-year commitment to school reform.
In Washington, meanwhile, occupying the top post in the new Education Department, Bennett encouraged the reformers and took serious steps to equip them with the research findings and data they needed to bring rigor, comparability, and choice into their work. (He proposed, for example, changes in the National Assessment of Educational Progress that made possible the first valid state-to-state comparisons of academic performance.)
The initial impulse of many of these conservative ed-reformers was to raise standards for the system as a whole, which began with tougher graduation requirements, “minimum competency” exams and fewer electives of the basket-weaving variety. They also pushed to create additional school choices for families. Minnesota enacted statewide “open enrollment” in 1988 and two years later Wisconsin began the country’s first modern voucher program.
Toughening standards, however, was easier said than done, because it was easy for districts and state education departments to game such requirements: “You want three years of math instead of two? Fine, we’ll just spread out the same content.” What the system needed were true external standards—statements of what students should know and be able to do, a clear definition of the desired endpoint, and tests by which to determine how many kids and schools were getting there.
In 1989, the governors—all of them—met with President George H.W. Bush in Charlottesville and emerged with a set of ambitious (and ultimately unworkable) “national education goals” for the year 2000. This was followed, during the Bush père and Clinton years, by an abortive attempt at setting federally inspired, subject-specific, education standards for the country. After this flopped badly, the standards action moved back to the states, where it’s been ever since, albeit with various forms of encouragement (and harassment) from Washington. Early adopters of rigorous statewide standards, including Texas and North Carolina, showed that this approach—combined with suitable tests and public results—could lead to significant achievement gains. Other states, including Jeb Bush’s Florida and Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts, followed suit, with even better results. (Massachusetts is now the sole state whose educational performance rivals the highest-achieving countries of Asia and Europe.)
At the same time, the push for parental choice gained oomph as Minnesota passed the first charter school law (1991), followed swiftly by California and Colorado, then dozens more. Other forms of public-school choice have burgeoned, and vouchers and tax credit scholarships have spread, too, to some 16 states today.