We have long benefited from a broad coalition that has advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.
That coalition has waned. It’s time to rebuild it.
Today, education is blessed with bipartisan agreement on what works, and cursed with bipartisan complacency at every level on taking action.
Both sides recognize the need to balance strong federal accountability with local innovation; to support high standards for teachers; and to encourage choice and diversity while keeping public schools as the core focus of national policy.
Current federal education policy, governed by the Every Student Succeeds Act, encourages states to implement those principles in accordance with local needs and context. But today, even the country’s greatest champions for local control see state efforts as underwhelming and insufficient.
In the absence of an aggressive national push, even the best ideas lack the momentum to create effective change on the ground.
It wasn’t always like this. While we didn’t always agree about the best way to get there, for years we agreed on the destination. Far-sighted presidential and legislative leadership, an engaged business community and an enduring civil rights movement saw quality education as the key to all other forms of progress.
That alliance allowed President Ronald Reagan to oversee “A Nation at Risk,” a report that made education a priority in the national consciousness; President George H.W. Bush to convene the governors and catalyze state-level education progress; President Bill Clinton to push for rigorous student achievement standards and charter school expansion to promote school innovation; President George W. Bush to champion the bipartisan No Child Left Behind to address achievement gaps through strong federal standards; and President Barack Obama to create Race to the Top and incentivize continuous improvement in school performance.
For decades, national leadership rejected the soft bigotry of low expectations and insisted that every student, regardless of race, background or economic hardship, deserved the American ideal of equal opportunity. A promise that’s given life through education.
Today, we lack the national leadership to fulfill that promise. We see the consequences in state education plans that lack vision, commitment or ambition, and in recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showing stagnant progress in our “national report card.” Students are suffering because of an absence of vision, a failure of will and politics that values opposition over progress. There is a moral imperative to act.
Last month, four U.S. secretaries of education representing 16 years of experience as secretary, serving under George W. Bush and Obama, shared a stage at the Reagan Institute. We were marking the 35th anniversary of “A Nation At Risk,” which galvanized national resolve around education.
The stark report outlined our national failure: “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
After decades of momentum across different administrations, all of us believe we’re headed toward another round of unilateral disarmament. Federal education policy is rudderless and adrift.
What, today, is the national priority for K-12 schools? For higher education? What policy proposal exists today that can plausibly achieve the progress we need?
At a moment when students are marching in the streets for their right to a safe, quality education; when teachers across the country are demanding attention and investment from their political leaders; when every economic indicator confirms the growing importance of a sound education in forging a full, productive life, what is our shared national vision for our children?
Higher expectations and strong standards — backed by federal policy that protects the enormous taxpayer investment in K-12 schools and higher education — are bipartisan concerns. Respect for teaching, and the accompanying need for better preparation and support for teachers, must be one unifying goal.
Each of us has different views about the right balance of federal oversight and incentives when it comes to America’s schools and colleges. We all welcome a lively debate on the best way for Congress, the president and the Department of Education to encourage school improvement.
But whatever the precise policies, we believe there’s a crucial role for national policymakers to set ambitious goals, marshal resources and enact policies that benefit our students. That’s not happening with the urgency we need.
Education is what makes America the country it is. An educated populace, versed in civics, trained to reason and empowered to act is what safeguards our democracy. Equitable access to education — our greatest force for economic mobility, economic growth and a level playing field for all — is what underwrites the American meritocracy.
We urgently need a new generation of business leaders who see the alignment between their corporate priorities and the national interest. We need teacher unions and school leaders ready to play a vital, constructive role in setting fair standards. We need civil rights advocates who can mobilize around the foundational importance of equal access to education. And we need political leaders who know that a fair, prosperous country is forged in classrooms, not at campaign rallies.
Without that renewed coalition, we are once again a nation at risk. After decades fighting for equitable, high-quality education, many across the country are exhausted. We know. But our progress is real, and the consequences if we relent are real as well. It’s time for us to rally, to step up to the plate once more and rebuild American education’s grand coalition.
Arne Duncan, managing director of the Emerson Collective, was U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama. Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina System, was U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush.