In 1983, during the period I was serving as a mid-level manager and political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education, President Reagan unveiled his “NATION AT RISK” report on the state of American education. The report sparked a national dialogue on education reform, but when the dust settled, predictably, the education establishment had survived the challenge to its monopoly powers.
Thirty-one years later, we are still a nation at risk because of the failures of our public education system.
What makes the situation even worse today is that we have no national Republican leader championing higher standards and higher goals for our public schools. Instead, we have a coordinated, “bipartisan coalition” pushing a phony reform called the “Common Core Standards.” The battle for quality schools and rigorous standards has largely been abandoned in favor of minimum standards that won’t challenge or embarrass any school board or principal – and opens the door to increased federal control as well.
What was remarkable about the “NATION AT RISK” report was that it did not call for more federal spending or more federal control of education. The report did not whine about the lack of funding for education. Instead, it documented the lack of adequate goals and the steady decline in academic standards. In fact, it explicitly disavowed such cookie-cutter solutions.
Instead, Reagan challenged the states and local school boards to take up the challenge of improving educational performance. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they went AWOL.
We need to remember that for Ronald Reagan, that project, the “NATION AT RISK” report, was not a shot in the dark, not a one-day media event or “photo op.” From day one, he had made the federal role in education a topic of debate in Washington, D.C. He offered legislation to downsize the federal role by demoting the Department of Education from cabinet status. That proposal was rejected, but Congress did adopt his K-12 education block grant whereby 42 categorical aid programs were consolidated into one block grant. States and local districts suddenly had flexibility to spend that money as they chose, not as federal bureaucrats dictated.
I recount the story of the Reagan-era reforms for a reason. We have become so cynical about the seeming inevitability of a federal takeover of education that we forget that we once had a leader who halted that federal takeover and, for a time, reversed it. The lesson? Leadership does make a difference.
Today we are engaged in a mushrooming national debate over the Common Core Standards, a “reform” being promoted by the federal government and dozens of powerful national groups. The National Governors Association, the Chief State School Officers, the Gates Foundation and basically the entire education establishment has joined the Obama administration in pushing this new agenda onto state school officials and local school boards.
In my home state of Colorado, like many other states, the Common Core Standards were adopted as a condition for eligibility for the federal “Race to the Top” funding. Federal dollars have seduced state officials into a quagmire where local control of curriculum will lose all meaning.
Yet, this battle is far from over. Despite the impressive array of firepower and the leverage of federal dollars (i.e., bribery), opposition to Common Core is not subsiding, it is growing. Opposition first emerged two years ago among the homeschooling community, but the more the public learned about the curriculum content being introduced into local schools, and the more that honest questions went unanswered, the more opposition has spread.
This is a battle that must be won, and it is a battle that can be won. Citizens don’t want federal control of curriculum, and they want higher standards for student achievement, not politically correct, dumbed down curriculum.
Conservatives and Republican leaders need to rally behind parents who are waging this battle. We can’t afford another generation of Republican leaders going AWOL on education standards and local control.
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