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Reagan’s Legacy: A Nation at Risk, Boost for Choice

By Sean Cavanagh — June 16, 2004 11 min read
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A charismatic icon of conservatism who argued against big government, former President Ronald W. Reagan left an education legacy marked by his advocacy of vouchers and school prayer and by his hopes of keeping federal control over classrooms from growing.

Yet his administration also issued the most influential education report of the past two decades, which ultimately helped pave the way for today’s federal mandates aimed at improving the nation’s schools.

Visitors to the U.S. Capitol read notes left in memory of former President Ronald W. Reagan last week.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Mr. Reagan’s philosophy was on display from the first months of his presidency in 1981—and it reverberates to this day, according to those who recalled his tenure in the week following his death on June 5 at the age of 93.

What he saw as his mission was clear in his call for abolishing the brand-new federal Department of Education. And it was reflected in his opposition to mandatory busing for school desegregation, his antipathy toward teachers’ unions, and his second-term appointment of a famously combative secretary of education who scorned the education establishment.

Several of Mr. Reagan’s more sweeping education proposals ended in defeat. Congress killed his major school choice initiatives, rejected several of his proposed cuts to school programs, and successfully fought off his plans to disband the Education Department.

Supporters of the late president say he deserves credit, however, for using his formidable persona to raise the national profile of education issues, even if his actions occasionally seemed to be led by forces outside his control. In 1983, a national commission convened by his first secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, released A Nation at Risk, an impassioned call for a more demanding set of expectations in American schools.

Opponents said that the president did little to implement or encourage the changes the panel proposed, but Mr. Reagan spoke often of the report after its release, and it became a reference point for reform-minded governors, federal lawmakers, and others.

Still, Mr. Reagan remained a champion of local control.

“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,” President Reagan said in an interview with Education Week in 1984.

“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.”

Critics recall Mr. Reagan as a divisive figure in education, whose policies undermined civil rights and whose anti-government, budget-slashing ways hurt schools.

“He was a man with a certain set of beliefs, and he did not stray from them,” said Jack Jennings, a top Democratic aide to the House Committee on Education and Labor during the 1980s. “It was one of his strengths,” said Mr. Jennings, now the president of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, “but it was also damaging. ... He was frozen in his beliefs.”

Wins and Losses

In his irreverent memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Mr. Bell described his Education Department tenure as a succession of battles with conservative ideologues in the White House. They continually sought to cut education programs, he said, and were deeply suspicious of federally driven school reforms.

While he credited Mr. Reagan with calling attention to the needs of schools following the release of A Nation at Risk, Mr. Bell said the president abandoned the issue after using it in his re-election campaign in 1984.

“Ronald Reagan was unable to recognize [the department] could perform that role and exercise crucial oversight while leaving responsibility for the governance of education to states and local communities,” Mr. Bell, who died in 1996, wrote in his 1988 memoir. “He saw it as either-or: federal control or state and local control.”

But Milton Goldberg, the staff director of the commission that produced A Nation at Risk, credited Mr. Reagan for effectively taking ownership of the report. “Reagan let it happen. Reagan made it his commission,” Mr. Goldberg recalled last week.

President Reagan’s legislative agenda presents a mixed record.

In 1981, Mr. Reagan supported the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act, which passed Congress as a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law loosened many regulations on schools, gave states more flexibility in distributing federal money as they saw fit, and consolidated or eliminated many federal education programs.

Many of the subsequent budget reductions to education programs were driven by the need to reduce domestic spending in the wake of the hefty income-tax cuts and big increases in defense expenditures that were the core initiatives of the Reagan administration. In the eight budgets he submitted to Congress, Mr. Reagan proposed increasing federal spending on education only three times—twice during election years. Congress, however, often wound up restoring some of the president’s cuts.

From fiscal years 1980 to 1990, federal appropriations for elementary and secondary education programs dropped by 12 percent, when adjusted for inflation, from $33.3 billion to $29.2 billion, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The federal share of spending for K-12 and college education fell from 14 percent to 10 percent during that time, according to the NCES.

“It was pretty consistent with Reagan’s overall view of the government’s role in education and reining in out-of-control government spending,” said Dick M. Carpenter, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado who has studied the late president. “The budget was a tool for doing that.”

Plans Rebuffed

The drive to cut federal spending yielded a memorable episode in 1981, when a Reagan administration plan aimed at reducing the size of meal allotments in the federal school lunch program attempted to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable. The resulting uproar proved embarrassing for Mr. Reagan’s administration, which quickly withdrew the proposal.

Mr. Reagan failed to muster congressional support for several of his signature education proposals. His proposal to establish private school vouchers under the Title I compensatory education program died, partly because of lack of support from Republican lawmakers who were worried about its impact on the public schools. His push for tuition tax credits for children in private schools also failed.

Yet today, the philosophy behind those proposals lives on in the form of state-enacted voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the state of Florida, and most recently, a federal voucher experiment approved by Congress for the District of Columbia.

“One of the things Reagan recognized as being done well from Washington was using the bully pulpit in education,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in Mr. Reagan’s second term and now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. “He realized that Washington was a good podium from which to steer the national discussion.”

Data and Standards

Mr. Reagan’s second education secretary, William J. Bennett, who took over from Mr. Bell in 1985, proved a much more polarizing figure than his predecessor. Mr. Bennett feuded with teachers’ unions, promoted abstinence in sex education, and once wrote that “appropriate moral and social conduct” was the only sure way to prevent the spread of AIDS.

President Reagan holds up a T-shirt at a school choice event just days before he left office in 1989. At left is Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.
—File photo by Marcy Nighswander/AP

Mr. Bennett, too, was a master of the bully pulpit. He taught a civics lesson in a Shreveport, La., classroom and made a famous visit to Chicago during which he declared that the city’s public schools were “the worst in the nation.”

Mr. Bennett’s Education Department also put a new emphasis on collecting research about effective classroom strategies and schools, and expanded the emphasis on using the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a way to evaluate student progress.

Still, that expansion was minuscule compared with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, the school improvement law signed by President Bush in 2002. Some observers say Mr. Reagan would have disapproved of its ambitious strategy of federal oversight in student achievement.

“Reagan never would have signed that bill,” Mr. Jennings said.

Mr. Reagan’s supporters, however, say the architects of the No Child Left Behind Act owe him a debt for the groundwork laid by A Nation At Risk.

“He was one of the first presidents to focus on the decline in standards in education,” said Linda Chavez, who was appointed as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Mr. Reagan.

Upon Mr. Bennett’s departure in 1988, President Reagan nominated Lauro F. Cavazos, the president of Texas Tech University, as education secretary. He became the first Hispanic member of a presidential Cabinet—a move that some political analysts said was aimed at helping then-Vice President George H.W. Bush pick up Latino support in that year’s presidential race.

Civil Rights, Social Issues

Mr. Reagan’s opposition to mandatory busing for school desegregation and to affirmative action constantly put him at odds with civil rights advocates. The president also angered many people when his administration argued that the Internal Revenue Service had no right to deny the tax-exempt status of schools deemed to be racially discriminatory, such as Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 upheld the IRS decision.

“His legacy on civil rights and education is not his proudest legacy,” said Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization in Washington. “He made it sound like it was someone else [supporting those positions], but it was his administration doing it.”

Conservatives such as Ms. Chavez argue that Mr. Reagan often drew fire for views that today are seen as mainstream, such as his opposition to racial quotas.

“The emphasis on trying to scale back racial preferences was absolutely on target,” Ms. Chavez said.

Mr. Reagan was also a vigorous advocate for conservative positions on social issues, such as prayer in the public schools. His wife, Nancy Reagan, backed a number of social causes of her own, most notably a nationwide anti-drug effort best remembered for its signature slogan, “Just say no.”

Mr. Reagan was accused during his presidency of being slow to raise public awareness about the AIDS epidemic. While he and Mr. Bennett said schools should promote sexual abstinence to prevent the spread of the disease, C. Everett Koop, who was appointed as surgeon general by Mr. Reagan, contrasted those views by advocating for widespread education about AIDS in classrooms, even at early grade levels.

One of the highest-profile education initiatives of the Reagan administration was NASA’s “Teacher in Space” project. Though greeted skeptically by many in the education community at first, that effort soon gained popularity in schools and among the public. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew, Mr. Reagan’s soothing speech to the nation was widely praised.

Well after the end of his presidency, Mr. Reagan indirectly helped advance private school vouchers and other pieces of the conservative education agenda through his appointments to the Supreme Court. He named Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy, and elevated William H. Rehnquist to be chief justice. Those four justices were in the majority in the high court’s 5-4 decision in 2002 upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. The fifth majority vote came from Clarence Thomas, who had served briefly as civil rights chief in Mr. Reagan’s Education Department

Mr. Thomas was one of a number of Reagan political appointees in the Education Department who became or have remained prominent national figures. That group also includes Mr. Finn; Gary L. Bauer, the undersecretary to Mr. Bennett who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000; and William Kristol, who was Mr. Bennett’s chief of staff and is now the editor of The Weekly Standard magazine.

Presidential Schools

At Ronald Reagan Fundamental School in Yuma, Ariz., preparations were under way last week for a special flag raising and moment of silence on June 11. That was the day set for the funeral and burial of Mr. Reagan, who could count the school among his namesakes.

According to the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, an organization that is advancing numerous ideas for commemorating the 40th president, five U.S. schools are named after him. There are elementary schools in Nampa, Idaho, and Bakersfield, Calif., as well as the Yuma school; a Ronald Reagan Middle School in Dixon, Ill., his hometown; and Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio.

Over the nearly 20 years since the 760-student Yuma school opened, there has been no lack of pride in Mr. Reagan’s legacy, said Principal Janet L. Shields. The former president kept in touch with the school over the years, writing a letter on its 10th anniversary, and he always responded when students sent him letters. The anniversary letter is on display in the school’s main office on a counter now draped in black with red roses and a large picture of Mr. Reagan.

“We’ve always been very proud to carry his name,” said Ms. Shields. “He’s always been one to emphasize the importance of getting an education and performing at your personal best, and that’s always kind of been our motto over the years.”

The marquee outside the Reagan Fundamental School states: “Reagan Patriots say, Goodbye Mr. President.”

Editorial Assistant Catherine A. Carroll contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Reagan’s Legacy: A Nation at Risk, Boost for Choice

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