Reagan responded largely by pushing for greater federal involvement in schools. His administration emphasized using the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress as a way to benchmark state performance. He also proposed a number of increases in education funding. “I’ve given education so much time […] for a very clear and simple reason: It’s because we in this administration view education as central to American life,” Reagan said.
But the warnings of A Nation at Risk are still relevant; our schools remain in deep crisis. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress for urban districts was released last month, it showed that most students are way behind in the academic basics, and only 4 percent of Detroit's eighth graders performed at grade level in math. We also continue to lag behind our international peers on importance outcome measures, and on a recent science test, the U.S. ranked 23rd out of 65 countries, scoring on par with nations like Poland.
The federal government can help improve our schools, and there are smart, capacity-building ways for Washington to boost academic standards and ensure that all schools are held accountable for their performance. Take the development of the new Common Core standards, which provide students clear expectations of what they need to know and be able to do. While leaving it up to the states to decide what went into the standards, the federal government helped promote the effort, including funding two consortia of states to develop tests based on the standards. Today, more than 45 states have joined the effort.
The Department of Education can also help ensure that all students—regardless of their family income—have access to a good education. Currently, many states have unequal funding systems in which high-poverty districts get less money than wealthier ones. In New Hampshire, for instance, a district with a 30 percent poverty rate receives about two-thirds the money per student than a district with no student poverty. Through federal programs that provide additional funds for low-income students such as Title I, Washington helps to equalize opportunity, helping to ensure that all students get a fair shot at a good education.
The GOP’s roll back-the-federal-role position has also made it difficult for schools and districts around the country to innovate and improve. Consider the No Child Left Behind Act, which is in serious need of repair. Almost a decade old, the law requires schools to implement strategies that are not strong enough to help schools get better. But while Congress needs to reform the law, Republicans have stymied efforts to pass a bipartisan bill because they want to gut the federal role.
Without question, Reagan was wrong on a lot of education issues. He pushed for mandatory prayer in public schools, which is a violation of the separation of church and state. He also advocated for tuition tax credits for private schools, which are unlikely to improve student achievement and undermine the virtues of public schooling.
The federal government will never solve all of our education ills. But Reagan understood that our school system needs to improve dramatically, which is why he supported a federal role in our schools. And today’s Republicans who so often pay homage to Reagan on issues of taxes and foreign policy should also study the Great Communicator’s stance on education. As Reagan said near the end of his presidency: “Strengthening [America’s] values… demands a national commitment to excellence in education.”
Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.