Federal Explainer

William J. Bennett, Third U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library Staff — August 18, 2017 | Updated: May 15, 2018 3 min read
President Ronald Reagan looks on as Attorney General William French Smith swears-in three new secretaries, including Secretary of Education William Bennett (left) at the White House, Thursday, Feb. 7, 1985 in Washington.
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Biographical Information: Bennett was born July 31, 1943 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bennett graduated from Williams College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas as well as a law degree from Harvard. He served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1981 to 1985, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1988, and then as the first “drug czar,” under President George H.W. Bush. In the years since he left government service, Bennett has hosted a syndicated radio show, authored or co-authored over 25 books, and was the founding chairman of K12 Inc., an online education company.

Served Under: President Ronald Reagan

Dates of Tenure: 1985-1988

Fun Fact: He wrote a children’s book, The Children’s Book of Virtues, which was turned into a show for children on PBS.

Highlights of Tenure:

  • Although Bennett entered the office of secretary of education believing that the department should be diminished and his role demoted from a Cabinet-level position, he became a strong advocate for school reform and a vocal Cabinet member.
  • Bennett advocated higher academic standards, improved teacher evaluation, and what he deemed model curricula. He also pushed for increased school choice and often battled with teachers’ unions.

Archives of Note:

Bennett Named to Education Post; Is Told To Study Reorganization
President Reagan nominated William J. Bennett to be the next secretary of education and ordered him, following his expected confirmation by the Senate, to conduct a study to determine whether the Education Department should be abolished or reorganized. (Jan. 16, 1985)

New Secretary: ‘Man of Opinions’
People who know William J. Bennett say he has opinions about nearly everything and he takes strong stands on the positions he believes in. “He’s like Reagan: he can be very charming but he doesn’t change his mind on anything,” says Kathleen M. Berns, an investigator for the House subcommittee that examined allegations of discriminatory hiring practices at the National Endowment of the Humanities under Mr. Bennett’s leadership. (Jan. 16, 1985)

Bennett’s History Lesson Earns Passing Grade
William J. Bennett was in Washington on the first day of classes last Tuesday to teach a group of 27 advanced-placement history students about one of his favorite topics, the Federalist Papers. The Washington stop was the second of eight on his tour of the nation’s classrooms to highlight successful school reform efforts and honor the teaching profession. (Sept. 11, 1985)

Bennett and the N.E.A.—A War of Words
The war of words between U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, has escalated in the past year. (Sept. 16, 1987)

Bennett: Public Schools Haven’t Earned an ‘A’
U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has provided a preview of his forthcoming “status report’’ on American schools five years after the release of “A Nation at Risk.” His update of that landmark critique will conclude that the nation’s education system “is getting a little bit better, but it is nowhere near where it should be,’' Mr. Bennett said in a recent speech before the National School Boards Association. (Apr. 13, 1988)

Anti-Drug Efforts Need Resources, Those in the Trenches Advise ‘Czar’
When William J. Bennett goes before the Senate this week to be confirmed as the first “drug czar,” school officials and drug education experts will be among those listening most carefully to his testimony. (Mar. 1, 1989)

Bennett Quits K12 Inc.
Under Fire Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett abruptly resigned last week from the education company K12 Inc. after his racially charged remarks on abortion and crime sparked a firestorm of criticism. (Oct. 11, 2005)

Conservative ESSA-Focused Group Led by Bill Bennett Expands Reach
Conservative Leaders for Education is looking to add state lawmakers to influence the Every Student Succeeds Act in states and counterbalance the power of other groups like the teachers’ unions. (Nov. 1, 2016)

Commentaries by William J. Bennett:

Is Our Culture in Decline?
Is our culture declining? I have tried to quantify the answer to this question with the creation of the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. (Apr. 7, 1993)

Improving Education With Technology
William J. Bennett and David Gelernter, senior executives with the planned online school K12, say the potential benefits of computer learning are now too great to dismiss. (Mar. 14, 2001)

No, Teacher Strikes Do Not Help Students
When teachers use their students as leverage, they damage their own professionalism, write William J. Bennett and Karen Nussle. (May 15, 2018)

    Additional Resources
    The University of Virginia’s Miller Center A brief biography highlighting Bennett’s role in the Reagan administration
    The Center for Education Reform A biography that highlights work in education reform and work since Bennett’s tenure as secretary of education

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library Staff. (2017, August 18). William J. Bennett, Third U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edeweek.org/policy-politics/william-j-bennett-third-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08


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