Ronald Reagan's Education Legacy

Former Capital Ideas Column
May 06, 2013

by Lance T. Izumi

While Ronald Reagan's foreign policy changed the face of the world, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his leadership also dramatically changed the face of issues at home. Top among those was education.

In 1983, the Reagan administration released the groundbreaking report “A Nation at Risk.” Using a wealth of statistical data, the report demonstrated in detail the failings of America’s education system and the impact of those failings on the country’s children. The report recommended greater emphasis on basic subjects such as math and English, more rigorous and measurable standards, higher expectations for student performance and conduct, lengthening the school year, and improving teacher quality through, for example, increasing standards for teacher training programs. It’s no coincidence that the report’s recommendations form the basis for much of today’s agenda for education reform.

Education Week observed that “the report led to comprehensive school reform efforts, was the impetus for the academic-standards movement, drew attention to the importance of education policy, and led to a focus on school accountability.” It is important to point out that the report, even with its shocking findings and cutting-edge recommendations, wouldn’t have had as powerful and lasting an impact without Ronald Reagan’s decision to use it to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding education.

According to Dick Carpenter, professor of education leadership at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, in the two years after the release of “A Nation at Risk,” Reagan delivered more than 50 education-related speeches. Prof. Carpenter found, “In speech after speech, Reagan articulated his educational beliefs and ideas, including: parental responsibility in education; school choice, including tax credits and vouchers; rigorous academic content focused on ‘basics’ such as reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and government; religious freedom in schools; high standards of conduct and discipline; character education; and a federal responsibility in helping the disadvantaged.”

The result of Reagan’s rhetorical onslaught, notes Prof. Carpenter, was and continues to be stunning:

“Through his rhetoric Reagan legitimized and raised in the public consciousness educational ideas that languished in previous administrations. These ideas, such as school choice, merit pay, educational excellence, or character education became the school reform movement of the 1990s and saw prominence in [George W.] Bush’s original education blueprint. Not only did these ideas enjoy renewed attention and power, but they became the focus of debate and a driving educational agenda in local, state, and national venues. Through Reagan, the debate had indeed changed.”

Real policy changed as well. Reagan’s constant call for school-choice vouchers laid the groundwork for subsequent voucher programs, including Congress’s recent approval of a voucher program for Washington, D.C. Also, Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn notes that Reagan changed the way educational success is measured, from inputs such as spending amounts and numbers of programs to results and effectiveness. Prof. Carpenter says that Reagan’s rhetoric “acted as a clarion call and an impetus for state and local level education leaders to re-examine education not on the Johnson-era standards of equity and equality but on the market-driven standards of excellence and quality.”

President Reagan didn’t just want to tear down the wall dividing East from West, he wanted to tear down the wall that separated children from educational success. That wall is crumbling and Ronald Reagan deserves a great deal of the credit.

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