The Rebirth of the Education Governor

Thirty years ago, Saturn started its current revolution around the Sun, Mt. St. Helens erupted, and Americans began to understand that governors are the most important people in U.S. K-12 education. They control, on average, about half of schools’ budgets. They propose, lobby, and ultimately sign legislation that spans the spectrum from teacher evaluations and collective bargaining to textbook adoption. Today, with bold gubernatorial leadership on display once again, we do well to recall some of the pioneering “education governors” of the 1980s, men and women who set about to reform their states’ public schools—indeed, to overhaul their states’ entire K-12 system.

Most of them were considered political “moderates”—mind you, that was neither a slur nor an endangered species in the ‘80s—and they definitely came from both parties. Prominent among them were Dick Riley (D-SC), Tom Kean (R-NJ), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Jim Hunt (D-NC), John Engler (R-MI), Bill Clinton (D-AR), Tommy Thompson (R-WI), Ann Richards (D-TX), and Rudy Perpich (DFL-MN)—to name a few.

These leaders ushered in statewide academic standards, new tests, the concept of results-based accountability, some fresh thinking about teachers and principals, charter schools, and plenty more. Teamed up (in 1989) with the first President Bush in Charlottesville, they also produced a set of “national education goals” such as this land never had before, and they helped to comprise a new panel in Washington to monitor the country’s progress toward those goals.

What charged them up at the time was the need for economic development and competitiveness for their states, complaints from their employers and universities about the unreadiness of local high school graduates, and mounting costs, coupled with the frustration that education consumed huge chunks of their budgets, yet they had relatively minimal control over what those funds purchased. (They were also fired up by A Nation at Risk.) So they exerted themselves as never before.

Their organizations and affiliates revved up, too. Most notable was the National Governors Association (NGA), which had not historically had a great deal to do with K-12 education but, beginning in 1986 with a five year Alexander-prompted project called “Time for Results,” bestirred itself both to push for education reform across the states and to monitor progress made by them.

With the 1990s came increased federal involvement in education reform, as governors of that time helped to activate and animate the feds. Though Bush 41 and Lamar Alexander (as his second secretary of education) didn’t get much through the Democratic Congress, President Bill Clinton signed major legislation in 1994 on which George W. Bush—Texas’s education-reform-minded governor of the late 1990s—built when he reached the White House a few years later. The result, of course, was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As Washington pushed harder, however, some governors backed off. By and large, the first decade of this century was not a time of huge gubernatorial initiative on the K-12 front. Reforming education seemed for a while to be Uncle Sam’s job. (Massachusetts under Bill Weld and his successors and Florida under Jeb Bush are notable exceptions.)

Today, however, Saturn has completed a full revolution and a new crop of reform-minded governors is reclaiming its territory in an efflorescence of leadership and state-level initiatives. Some of this shift back was triggered by discontent with NCLB and some was stimulated by Race to the Top. Either way, many have perceived that the nation is still at risk—and so are its states; that looking to Washington to solve problems is mostly futile and sometimes damaging; and that, in the end, states bear primary constitutional and financial responsibility for K-12 education. What’s more, with states running out of money and education consuming so many billions, eking greater bang from the available bucks is both irresistible and unavoidable.

The NGA is back in action, too, with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (co-created with the CCSSO and a bunch of foundation dollars). That happened before the 2010 election, which swept into office a bunch of new governors who have set out to reform public education while cutting its budget, something more or less unprecedented. They haven’t all been Republicans (consider Phil Bredesen in Tennessee and Jack Markell in Delaware, for example—both of their states round one winners of Race to the Top, also before the 2010 election) but most are. Prominent among them are Mitch Daniels (R-IN), John Kasich (R-OH), Scott Walker (R-WI) and Chris Christie (R-NJ). This time, however, few of them would be described as “moderates” and their states are awash in vivid partisan clashes.

That’s mostly due to budget cuts and related policy changes. Austerity defines the era and the leadership and reform strategies of these chief executives. Yes, they want to boost achievement and to foster more school choices. Some of them murmur about governance changes and technology. But what really seems to kindle their fires is saving money while rewriting the ground rules by which teachers in their schools are employed, rewriting them in ways that (a) economize in response to diminished revenues, (b) purge the ranks of incompetents, (c) reward merit, (d) open up both the pathways by which new teachers enter and those by which veteran teachers exit, and (e) weaken the public sector unions that have been stalwart supporters of the status quo (and of their political opponents).

Two of the “education governors” from the 80s and 90s went on to become president; two others became secretary of education. Will today’s crop of state leaders ascend to those heights? Time will tell. But we already know this: Like Saturn, the governors are back. And if they are able to implement their reform agendas, preferably without totally alienating their teachers, America’s kids will be the better for it. So will our taxpayers and our competitiveness.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This piece originally appeared in today’s Education Gadfly.

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