Although he really was not very involved in education, Reagan fever is gripping conservative education types, too, this week. In the past few days both Chester Finn and Jeanne Allen both have written about Reagan’s educational impact. Both credit Reagan with launching the current wave of school reform, though Allen also argues that he was the first national education reformer. Hmmm…in the 20th Century alone Lyndon Johnson, Albert Shanker, Thurgood Marshall, John Dewey, and even Admiral Rickover immediately spring to mind ahead of Reagan. And, incidentally, school choice at the federal level, that perennial conservative favorite, actually got further under Nixon than Reagan…it was sort of a liberal favorite back then…
Finn’s subtler point — that Reagan wasn’t much of an education reformer but paradoxically became the first “education president” because of the impact of Nation at Risk — seems about right, though again LBJ looms large. Nation was pivotal, and the report framed education reform policywise and politically for years to come. This, of course, is ironic on a couple of levels, most notably because it makes education another example of a big government legacy for the ostensibly small government Gipper.
Tom Toch notes in In the Name of Excellence that Reagan was pretty disengaged on education, and Nation received (limited) presidential attention only after Michael Deaver saw some Nation reforms gaining traction and sensed political opportunity. Because it did not advocate tuition tax credits, vouchers, or school prayer most White House players like Ed Meese (who famously characterized the Department of Education as a “bureaucratic joke”) wanted little to do with Nation. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon describes education as a “back-burner issue” in his seminal biography of the president.
Eduwonk thinks Reagan, a gifted politician who knew how to spin a tale, change with the times, and leave a crowd wanting more, would be happier with a causal revisionist version than the more ambiguous reality that he inadvertently set in motion something powerful that may end up as a major affront to his brand of conservatism. Though most liberals haven’t caught on yet, there is a reason most conservatives hate No Child Left Behind…
Update: An alert reader notes that the list of 20th Century national education reformers left out some likely candidates. Sure it did, including a slew of early commissions. Said reader makes a plug for Eisenhower and Roosevelt (math and science education, desegregation, and the G.I. Bill), writing that the G.I. Bill,
Fundamentally reformed higher education and the expectation of Americans by opening up higher ed to all segments of Americans and not just the elite few. It has had a major lasting impact on the country. Majority of these students were first generation college students, and their experiences impacted their children and grandchildren as well as generations of citizens who served the country.
Just furthers the point.