Ronald Reagan’s Rhetoric: A Nation at Risk of What?, Part II

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 31, 2021

As famous as the 1983 report, A Nation At Risk [1] has become, Ronald Reagan’s personal vision of education seems to have had little room for federal education policy or innovation of any kind.[2]

Reagan’s main objectives seemed to be decentralizing and simplifying the education system, which put him wildly out of sync with policymakers of both parties. In 1982, he spoke to editors of religious publications about supporting school choice via tax credits for tuition paid to private schools. He made an interesting comment:

“I say this as an answer to those people that, again, have just automatically tagged this proposal as ‘something for the rich.’ All they think of when they think of private--that's why I try to avoid the word "private" school. I try to refer to it as "independent" school, because all they think about is someone sending a child to a high-class, expensive finishing school or prep school. And that isn't true. That isn't what we're really talking about. There are so few of those compared to the general parochial schools, independent schools, throughout the country. But in this survey of 54 [parochial] schools, they found…[that most of these families] are not anywhere up on the economic scale…And they found that it was not religion that had prompted the overwhelming majority to choose a religious school, whether Protestant or Catholic; it was the desire and the belief that they would get a better education there than they could get in the present-day public schools.”[3]

In the 1980s, associating the word “private school” with fancy prep schools was probably natural to non-Catholic northeasterners from well-to-do-families, who were likely disproportionately represented among policymakers. Reagan acknowledged that the “independent school” concept was new to him as well, noting “I'm a product of the public schools, myself, in a small town in Illinois,” but that there had been “changes” to the public school system since then. That he saw “independent schools” as a refuge from this is evident from his remark that he “would hate to see the day when all education in our country was tax-supported and, therefore, under political guidance and rule.” Outside competition was now the best way to ensure “academic freedom” and high-quality education.[4]

The point was not the kind of school, but the benefits provided to all schools through the existence of competing options.[5] By the 1980s, the American public was hardly hostile to public schooling on principle, but they did care about the kind of curriculum, moral and academic, on offer.

Michael J. Bennett, who served as Secretary of Education under Reagan, recalled that when he spoke to a panel of Chief State School Officers, they told him that “the purpose of school is to teach students that we live in an ‘increasingly interdependent world.’” They did not say anything about what he claims most American parents thought the purpose of school to be: “teaching students how to speak, write, read, think, and count correctly or developing reliable standards of right and wrong.” “Education bureaucrats,” who were “engaged in an entirely different enterprise” than he was, kept explaining that they disagreed with the public’s conception of education. “Well, clearly this is not a hard one to figure out,” Bennett remarked, coming to the crux of the matter: The schools belonged to the American people, and “the ‘educrats,’ are hired hands.”[6]

This is precisely the assumption that Reagan believed that federal influence on secondary schools and colleges had set out to undermine by means of dependence-inducing financial support. “Well, of course, public education is not a function of the Federal Government,” he insisted. “As a matter of fact, being able to remember when that [financial support] began, it was the usual thing of the Federal Government claiming that there was distress after the Federal Government had usurped most of the tax sources in the country” he added, sarcastically. “And, having created the problem, then, for local rule, the Federal Government said, "Oh, we must help you.'” Like Bennett, he indicated that this reflected a view of education in which local, parental, and academic choice were secondary to compliance with the social engineering plans of federal policymakers.[7]

Regan was clear that his problem was federal influence over the curriculum specifically, which he saw as a threat to independent-mindedness, not federal intervention in general: “That [the integration of southern public schools] is the function of the Federal Government--to ensure that anyone's constitutional rights are being observed and to go wherever the government has to go to see that that does take place.”[8] It is clear that Reagan was primarily worried about the disregard for constitutional rights and American educational traditions he perceived among policymakers, with their top-down, paternalistic, and standardized notions of government policy.

For decades, Reagan tried to raise the question of whether teachers would remain the “hired hands” of American parents or whether they would claim legitimacy based on their professional expertise and the high-level collective organization allegedly demanded by modernity. This debate, which is ongoing and transcends the usual political divides, was presciently summed up in one of his 1966 speeches:

“Honestly though, I know that they only mean to be helpful. I know that it's really human nature... they're motivated by the most humanitarian of idealism. It's just natural for them to see the problems and see the immediate problem and to suggest, ‘Oh if we had a little more money, a little more power, oh what we could do for the people.’

Now in an atmosphere of emergency and excessive zeal for our welfare the federal government proposes to invade an area [that is] the traditional province of the local community and state. The finest public school system in all the world. With no real determination yet that the federal government is the best manager of our educational affairs. A suspicion prevails that they're not so much interested in speeding progress as they are in asserting authority in every conceivable aspect of the educational system. An educational system that has worked very well and has been responsive to parental opinion but Washington insists that it only wants to help solve the financial problems attended on our rapid growth…

Education is the bulwark of freedom but you remove it too far from the community and the parents’ control and education becomes the tool of tyranny.

Already here and there in our land, there are too many students that are studying from textbooks that devote a chapter to public welfare and not one line to Patrick Henry.”

How we got from this speech to A Nation At Risk will be the subject of Part III.

1. "As implied by the title of the report, the commission's charter responds to Terrel Bell's observation that the United States' educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce. Among other things, the charter required the commission to assess the "quality of teaching and learning" at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, in both the public and private spheres and to compare "American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations." The report was primarily authored by James J. Harvey, who synthesized the feedback from the commission members. Harvey wrote, "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people... If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." See Wikipedia contributors, "Terrel Bell," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrel_Bell.

2. In 1966, Reagan described the idea of national textbook standards as “very disturbing.” Ronald Reagan, "The Myth of The Great Society," speech given on September 28, 1965.

3. Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session on Proposed Tuition Tax Credit Legislation With Editors of Religious Publications, September 14, 1982. 

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid. (“…the fact that families are paying their full share of the taxes to support the public school system and are still willing to sacrifice on top of that and pay fully the cost for sending their child-there's no way that this can be construed, as some are trying to do, as an assault on the public schools, or that in any way it is taking anything away from the support of the public schools.”)

6. William J. Bennett, “The War Over Culture in Education,” The Heritage Foundation, September 5, 1991, https://www.heritage.org/education/report/the-war-over-culture-education.

7. Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session on Proposed Tuition Tax Credit Legislation.

8. Ibid; see also n1.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.

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