President Charts Administration Role In Education’s ‘Electrifying Renewal’

May 30, 1984 19 min read

Though he spent the first two years of his term urging a reduced federal role in education, President Reagan during the past 12 months has played a central role in returning the condition of the schools to the top of the national agenda. He has spoken out on the subject repeatedly, has visited schools in many parts of the country, and has brought scores of students and educators to the White House for various ceremonies. He has also lobbied the Congress vigorously on behalf of his education agenda.

In the following exclusive interview, the President offers his appraisal of American education and he reflects on the wave of reform sweeping through the schools. He discusses his own role in renewing the nation’s interest in schooling. And in reviewing his Administration’s work in education, Mr. Reagan addresses critics of his education policies. The interview involved written questions and answers and a White House conversation with Associate Editor Thomas Toch.

QYou seem to have taken the position that the federal government should have very little role in the educational system. Would you outline specifically how you think the federal government should be involved in education?

AOur children deserve the best quality education we can provide, one that will prepare them well for further study, meaningful careers, and good citizenship. I believe the federal government has an important--but limited--role to play.

One thing the federal government cannot do is single-handedly buy educational excellence with federal taxpayer dollars. In fact, a 600-percent increase in federal education spending from 1960 to 1980 was accompanied by a steady decline in scholastic achievement-test scores. All those federal tax dollars were no guarantee of excellence.

Furthermore, too much federal involvement has tended to interfere with the traditional local control over our schools.

It is in our homes, where parents guide their children, and in our communities, where local school boards know their own areas’ needs, that responsibility for running our schools has always rested, as it should. America has prided itself on an education system controlled, not by Washington, D.C., but by the states, communities, and parents who are closest to the schools themselves. I believe we should preserve that.

QBut what should the federal government do?

AThe federal government can offer the leadership and encouragement to the states as they move toward reform. By appointing the National Commission on Excellence in Education and bringing its recommendations for improvement before the public, my Administration has tried to lead the way to reform.

I’ve tried to use what Theodore Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to sound a call to action. In fact, since taking office, I’ve spoken out on education no less than 43 times so far, not counting White House meetings on education and interviews.

QDo you think that has helped?

AIn the year since the National Commission made its report, the evidence of reform in the states and local communities has been overwhelming, I’m pleased to say. Things are turning around, and it’s being done without tightening Washington’s grip on local schools. The American people are asking questions about how much their children are learning--not how much Washington is spending.

The federal government can also help meet the special education needs of groups requiring particular assistance, such as the handicapped and the disadvantaged. We are continuing to meet those needs, as well as meeting our responsibilities in areas such as enforcing the civil-rights laws in education.

QSince World War II every President and every Congress has viewed public education as an important national resource that is critical to the prosperity and security of the nation. How do you feel about that?

AI absolutely agree that public education is vital to the security and prosperity of our nation. After all, in today’s modern world, we Americans have to compete in world markets with well-educated and highly motivated citizens of other nations. If we are to remain competitive, as well as secure, we had better have educated, technically competent citizens in the coming years.

It was precisely because I view education as so vital that I was so concerned, when I took office, about the long decline in academic achievement. It seemed to me that, for too many years, our national leadership had allowed the quality of education to deteriorate and that it was high time to do something about it.

My Administration, consequently, did what none other had ever done before; we appointed a distinguished, bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of educators to look at American education and recommend ways of improving it. The National Commission on Excellence in Education did just that and, in April 1983, they issued a report that has since become a document of historic importance. In a nutshell, the commission urged schools to get back to basics.

The public response to that report, as I said, has been overwhelming. Parents, teachers, school officials, and legislators are taking to heart its recommendations for basic reforms such as stiffer graduation requirements, more time in school, performance-based pay for teachers, better textbooks, and improved discipline in the classroom.

To encourage that public debate on reform, we organized 12 regional forums around the country, plus a first-ever national forum last year, to bring educators, officials, and others together to share ideas and suggestions. Out of those forums came a new awareness of how much can be done to turn our schools around.

Today, just one short year after the national commission issued its report, virtually every state in the Union is in the midst of educational renewal. Looking at what’s happening in the states, I think we’re seeing a tidal wave of reform--some of the most fundamental educational improvements of this century.

QEarlier in the interview you linked increases in federal support for education in the past two decades to apparent declines in educational quality. But most of the funds have been earmarked for disadvantaged students.

AThe real question here is not whether huge federal spending increases caused education’s problems, but whether all those increases in spending actually gave taxpayers and schools their money’s worth.

After all--seeing federal education spending jump from $700 million in 1962 to $15 billion today, during which time academic achievement scores continued to plunge, we ought to be asking ourselves whether it takes something more than federal money to do the job.

QThen how do you respond to the research suggesting that federal compensatory-education programs have resulted in significantly improved learning among disadvantaged students?

AMy Administration supports federal efforts to improve the education of the disadvantaged. Many studies have been done during the past 18 years since compensatory education has been authorized to determine if programs funded under Chapter I have gained significant improvement in how well students perform academically. My Administration has begun a comprehensive, in-depth study, by the National Institute of Education, to determine how effective the current Chapter I program has been. Meanwhile, we have requested that Congress fund this program at virtually the same level in 1985 as in 1984.

QYou also cite declining scholastic-aptitude test scores as evidence of the general decline in education, yet historically, few of the students in federally supported education programs have taken the sat

AIf, as you say, few students in federally supported programs take the sat, that might suggest that some of these spending programs have been less than successful at closing the “educational gap.”

The National Commission on Excellence in Education saw this point clearly, which is why they recommended not vast new federal spending programs, but basic reform on the state and local levels in all areas--like curriculum, standards, and incentives for teacher performance.

It would be simple if the mere act of sending more dollars from Washington, D.C., and recycling them back to states and communities, would cure education’s ills. But the record shows it hasn’t worked that way, and the American people deserve better than just more of the same.

QSome educators are warning that as states and school systems move to raise standards, many less gifted students will be unable to cope and will thus be likely to drop out. What responsibility does the federal government have to try to provide a “safety net” for such students?

AI think we should remember that over the past two decades schools have been lowering their academic standards in order to accommodate the less academically talented students, and yet, during that period of time, the dropout rate has actually increased considerably. So we shouldn’t conclude that lowering standards will somehow keep students in school and that raising standards will force students to drop out.

The lion’s share of spending for education has always come from state and local sources, which have the primary responsibility for providing such a “safety net.” Revenue receipts have been increasing, and the states have been providing more funds for education in the past few years.

I don’t believe the federal government should start dictating to local school districts how they must handle their teaching of students who are less academically talented. Nor do I think we should assume that higher standards will be harmful to students at the bottom of the class.

As the national commission pointed out, and many teachers have confirmed, students tend to rise to challenges. When more is expected of them, they tend to buckle down and try harder--often discovering, in the process, that they can accomplish much more than they originally thought possible.

Although, as I said, most funding and decisionmaking to help slower students comes from states and local communities, not Washington, our Chapter I program to aid disadvantaged students is continuing.

QAlong the same lines, much research suggests that students of affluent parents are more apt as a group to do well in school than less advantaged students. How much responsibility do you personally think taxpayers should take on to raise up--by means of schooling--the populations that the clergy of many faiths call the “least among us?” By that, they mean the poorest, most culturally disadvantaged, youngsters in our social system.

AAll students in our schools, no matter what their background or family income levels, should have the opportunity to use education to go as far as their talents and ambitions will carry them.

Since schools are run at the local and state level and funded there, taxpayers in each community and state must look to their students’ needs and act accordingly. That’s the bedrock on which American education rests.

Parents of all students--including those of disadvantaged children--must also help, as so many are doing. Throughout American history, low family income hasn’t been a barrier to countless students who rose from humble means to do great deeds in American society. Parental and family love and encouragement, plus determination to better one’s self--these have always been familiar ingredients in real-life American success stories.

There is no reason to believe that raising overall standards will in any way lead schools or school boards to forget or ignore the less gifted children. That idea would be an insult to the people who care about those children--their parents and teachers.

We in the federal government can, and are, offering encouragement for education reform, knowing that, without good basic education, disadvantaged students will have serious trouble when they leave school or move on to higher grade levels. That’s the whole idea behind our encouragement of reform in the states based on the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence.

We’ve also started a new program to reward high-school students of all income levels for good achievement in school. It’s called the President’s Academic Fitness Awards and it’s modeled after the President’s Physical Fitness Awards. In this first year, it’s being given to over 220,000 high-school students who achieved good grades and high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

One related point should be made with respect to disadvantaged students. By restoring discipline to our schools, we can help disadvantaged students--many of whom are victimized by crime and disruption in the classrooms and hallways--to learn more during their school days. No student should be prevented from learning by disruptions, fear, or violence at school.

QAside from your creation of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, your concerns regarding education have been largely in the areas of values: school prayer, discipline, rewarding merit, and choice for parents. But educators “out in the trenches” face such practical problems as finding enough competent people to staff science and math classes. Many of these frontline educators say specific kinds of federal help are needed to address the problems identified by your excellence commission and Secretary Bell. How do you respond to them?

AI can think of no more practical problem “out in the trenches” than that of students who aren’t learning as much as they should because standards are low, teachers aren’t rewarded for excellence, curriculum requirements are weak, and lack of discipline allows classroom disruptions. That’s where we’re focusing.

Further, school systems have different priorities. But in the past the federal government has told local school officials exactly how the money it gave them was to be spent. ... We’ve said, you are the experts, you know what your priorities are, what your needs are, here is a block grant and you apply it where it can best be used. It is a far better arrangement.

And speaking of practical problems for schools, we ought to remember that the double-digit inflation that was raging before we took office was eating away at education’s dollars just like it was eating away everybody else’s dollars. We’ve cut inflation down to under 5 percent. Thanks to the strong economic recovery, rising employment and our across-the-board 25-percent tax-rate reduction, taxpayers are becoming better able to meet the needs of state and local taxes for education, as those needs are determined on the state and local levels.

As for the example you mentioned, namely, competent math and science teachers, my Administration has proposed a $200-million, four-year block grant to train 10,000 math and science teachers each year. Funds would be available to help states meet the need for more math and science teachers or bringing back retired teachers. The National Science Foundation also has a program to improve the teaching skills of math and science teachers.

But overall, it’s performance-based salary incentives for the best teachers that will increase the number of college graduates entering these merit areas of teaching. Rewarding the best teachers through merit-pay methods such as career ladders is the best way to attract good people.

QIn fiscal 1983 your administration proposed cutting the federal education budget 32 percent, from $14.72 billion to $9.95 billion, and you urged the dismantling of the Education Department. In your fiscal 1985 budget, you make no mention of dismantling the department and you propose a budget of $15.3 billion. What brought about this rather dramatic change in your position?

AWe should keep in mind that the federal aid accounts for less than 10 per cent of all education spending, which means that what we propose for the department’s budget is by no means a complete measure of our commitment to improving education in this country. As I mentioned earlier, it is not federal spending, but basic reforms in the states, communities, and schools themselves that will make the difference.

QDo you still favor removing the education agency from Cabinet-level status?

AAs you know, the Department of Education was founded in 1979 by an Act of Congress. The National Education Association supported the legislation, and the American Federation of Teachers opposed it.

I proposed dismantling the Department of Education because I believed the federal education programs could be administered without a separate Cabinet-level agency--as in all the years prior to 1980. In fact, two-thirds of the federal government’s annual expenditure’s for schools, colleges, and vocational education are administered by other agencies.

There is some of this talk that says we have abandoned or just ignored what we were going to do about the department. The truth is we couldn’t get enough support for the idea, even among our own people. ... But we will bring the same plan up there again if we are re-elected.

But whether or not there is a separate department, most programs today run by the Department of Education existed long before it did, and will continue for as long as a national need can be shown for them.

In looking at how federal education programs should be organized, we have been especially concerned that the federal government not be in a position to interfere with state and local control of education. That’s why we proposed changing the department’s structure into a foundation-type entity.

QMost of those advocating reform of public schools in the past year have said we as a nation need to rethink what our high-school graduates should know and reassemble the schools’ curricula accordingly. Your National Commission on Excellence in Education, for example, advocated that all schools teach the so-called “new basics,” a core group of subjects the commissioners spelled out. At the same time, you have spoken repeatedly of the impropriety of federal directives in education. Is there a distinction between your view and that of the excellence commission on curriculum matters?

AThe national commission very wisely urged local school districts to adopt requirements for core subjects such as the “new basics” of math, science, English, social studies, and computers. The commission felt that, by strengthening core curricula, schools could better prepare students for productive futures. I consider these to be sound and sensible recommendations.

However, our encouragement of curriculum reform, based on the national commission’s report, by no means amounts to a federal directive. Decisions about curriculum reform should be made where they always have been--at the state and local levels.

QThirty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, many of the nation’s urban school systems are almost totally resegregated. Is this situation acceptable to you? And, in your opinion, whose responsibility is it to ensure that under such conditions all students are given an equal opportunity to develop to the best of their ability?

AI deplore discrimination in any form and believe we must fully protect the civil rights of every student, as we must for every American. Each American child and adult has a right to develop his or her talents to the fullest.

In seeking to achieve the goal of school desegregation, in many communities courts relied heavily on the tool of court-ordered busing. That reliance on busing to achieve desegregation was used too often, and the results have frequently been counterproductive.

After 15 years of community disruptions and enormous cost, busing’s goal has not been reached. The purpose of busing was supposed to be desegregation, but it has, in many cases, led to resegregation due to so-called “white flight.”

In fact, forced busing has put an unfair burden on minorities because a much higher percentage of black children are being bused away from their communities even though the majority opinion in a recent federal court ruling pointed out that any intentional effort to make the burden [of busing] fall more heavily on one race than another would, of course, [violate the] constitutional law. A Harris poll showed that only 38 per cent of black citizens favor forced busing.

There are better alternatives than busing. For example, there are successful open-enrollment proposals in cities like Portland, Oregon, Las Vegas, Little Rock, and others. Magnet schools have offered another successful alternative to forced busing, and we ought to be looking at these kinds of alternatives as we seek to protect our students’ civil rights.

QIs the nation’s education system any stronger today than it was when you entered office? If so, in what ways?

AToday, education is undergoing an electrifying renewal, the likes of which we’ve never seen. It is based on how much students learn, not how much the federal government spends. My administration’s part in this renewal has been appointing the commission that took a hard look at education problems, launching the national debate on the commission’s ideas, and encouraging concrete changes in the state houses and in the school districts. I might add that, in doing these things, we’ve been fortunate to have had the benefit of Secretary of Education Terrel Bell’s fine leadership.

We’ve tried to give states and local officials more flexibility to focus on the problems the national commission identified, by proposing significant increases in our Chapter II block grants. We’re also getting the private sector involved, through our Partnerships in Education, and we’re rewarding excellence through our Secondary School Recognition Program and Academic Fitness Awards.

The record of progress in just the short time since the commission’s report was made public has been tremendous. In virtually every state, graduation requirements are being strengthened, in many states merit pay is being considered or tried, and a host of other improvements are underway.

What should make this record most gratifying to parents and educators is the fact that its effects--in the form of higher student achievement--will continue to be felt for many years to come. I believe the nation’s education system is much stronger today than it was a few years ago, largely because we’re no longer satisfied with poor-quality schools.

There is still more to be done, but the important thing is that the momentum has shifted away from mediocrity and toward excellence.

QThe end of the school year is approaching, and it has been a year filled with activity to upgrade the nation’s schools. On your end-of-the-year report card, what grade would you give public education?

AThe 1984 school year may be ending, but the job of education reform is just getting started, so I’d say it’s a little early to be giving a final grade. But seeing how the nation’s educators and school officials are joining the reform movement, I’d give them an A for helping things get started.

Of course, we should keep in mind that it isn’t only the schools themselves that are part of this. It’s also the parents, state legislators, and the students themselves whose willingness to improve our schools will determine what kind of grade our schools will get in the next few years.

QFinally, is there any news of new Administration initiatives in education that you would like to share with the nation’s educators?

AOur focus for the immediate future is on following through with the program set forth in “A Nation at Risk” and on the education initiatives we’ve already announced.

We look forward to continued news of state reforms and, before long, evidence of the beginning of an upturn in student achievement as these new reforms take effect. We’ll move ahead with our efforts to control school crime, pass tuition tax credits and school vouchers, and to restore for our children the basic right to participate in voluntary school prayer.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1984 edition of Education Week as President Charts Administration Role In Education’s ‘Electrifying Renewal’