The rebirth of the education governor



   Photo courtesy of the National Governors Association

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...a new crop of reform-minded
governors is reclaiming its territory in an efflorescence of leadership
and state-level initiatives.


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
(R-IN), John
(R-OH), Scott
(R-WI) and Chris
(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.

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