The States Are Back

Wednesday, July 13, 2011
The States Are Back
Image credit: 
Taylor Jones

Thirty years ago, Saturn started its current revolution around the sun, Mount St. Helens erupted, and Americans began to understand that governors are the most important people in American K–12 education. They control, on average, about half of schools’ budgets. They propose, lobby for, and ultimately sign legislation that spans the spectrum from teacher evaluations and collective bargaining to textbook adoption. Today, with bold gubernatorial leadership on display once again, we do well to recall some of the pioneering “education governors” of the 1980s, men and women who set about to reform their states’ public schools—indeed, to overhaul their states’ entire K–12 systems.

Most of them were considered political moderates—mind you, that was neither a slur nor an endangered species in the ’80s—and they came from both major parties. Prominent among them were Dick Riley (D-South Carolina), Tom Kean (R-New Jersey), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Jim Hunt (D-North Carolina), John Engler (R-Michigan), Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), Tommy Thompson (R-Wisconsin), Ann Richards (D-Texas), and Rudy Perpich (DFL-Minnesota)—to name a few.

These leaders ushered in statewide academic standards, new tests, the concept of results-based accountability, some fresh thinking about teachers and principals, charter schools, and plenty more. Teamed up (in 1989) with the first President Bush in Charlottesville, they also produced a set of “national education goals” that this land had never had before, and they helped to make up a new panel in Washington to monitor progress toward those goals.

Reforming education seemed for a while to be Uncle Sam’s job.

What charged them up was the need for economic development and competitiveness for their states, complaints from their employers and universities about the unreadiness of local high school graduates, and mounting costs. They also were frustrated that education consumed huge chunks of their budgets although they had relatively minimal control over what those funds purchased. (In addition, they were fired up by A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.)

So they exerted themselves as never before. Their organizations and affiliates revved up, too. Most notable was the National Governors Association (NGA), which historically had not been greatly involved in K–12 education. Beginning in 1986 with a five-year Alexander-prompted project called “Time for Results,” the NGA bestirred itself to both push for education reform across the states and monitor progress made by them.

With the 1990s came increased federal involvement in education reform, as governors of that time helped to activate and animate the feds. Though the elder Bush and Lamar Alexander (as his second secretary of education) didn’t get much through the Democratic Congress, President Clinton signed major legislation in 1994 which George W. Bush—Texas’s education-reform-minded governor of the late 1990s—built upon when he reached the White House a few years later. The result, of course, was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As Washington pushed harder, however, some governors backed off. The first decade of this century was not a time of huge gubernatorial initiative on the K–12 front. Reforming education seemed for a while to be Uncle Sam’s job. (Massachusetts under Bill Weld and his successors, and Florida under Jeb Bush, are notable exceptions.)

Today, however, Saturn has completed a full revolution and a new crop of reform-minded governors are reclaiming their territory in an efflorescence of leadership and state-level initiatives. Some of this shift back was triggered by discontent with NCLB and some was stimulated by Race to the Top. Either way, many have perceived that the nation is still at risk—and so are its states; that looking to Washington to solve problems is mostly futile and sometimes damaging; and that, in the end, states bear primary constitutional and financial responsibility for K–12 education. What’s more, with states running out of money and education consuming so many billions, eking out greater bang from the available bucks is both irresistible and unavoidable.

The NGA is back in action, too, with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (co-created with the Council of Chief State School Officers and foundation support). That happened before the 2010 elections, which swept into office a number of governors who have set out to reform public education while cutting its budget, something virtually unprecedented. Not all are Republicans (consider Phil Bredesen, former governor of Tennessee, and Jack Markell in Delaware—both of whose states were first-round winners under Race to the Top, also before the 2010 elections) but most are. Prominent among them are Mitch Daniels (R-Indiana), John Kasich (R-Ohio), Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin), and Chris Christie (R-New Jersey). This time, however, few of them would be described as moderates and their states are awash in vivid partisan clashes.

Image credit: Taylor Jones

That’s mostly due to budget cuts and related policy changes. Austerity defines the era and the leadership and reform strategies of these chief executives. Yes, they want to boost achievement and foster more school choices. Some of them murmur about governance changes and technology. But what really seems to kindle their fires is saving money while rewriting the ground rules by which teachers in their schools are employed. They want rules to help economize in response to diminished revenues, purge the ranks of incompetents, reward merit, open up the pathways by which new teachers enter and veteran teachers exit, and weaken the public sector unions that have been stalwart supporters of the status quo (and of those governors’ political opponents).

Two of the education governors from the ’80s and ’90s went on to become president; two others became secretary of education. Will today’s crop of state leaders ascend to those heights? Time will tell. But we already know this: if the governors are able to implement their reform agendas, preferably without alienating their teachers, America’s kids will be the better for it. So will our taxpayers and our competitiveness.