Nation At Risk: Ed Reform Challenge for 45th President


June 15, 2015

By Charles Barone

This blog is Part 3 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series


In 1983, the Reagan Administration issued a seminal report on education entitled A Nation at Risk. Though released over 30 years ago, the report presented overarching conclusions that were eerily prescient of where we are today.

[Emphasis in bold added.]

America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer…Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce…If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all–old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.

The report immediately jolted and shaped the national education debate. When it came to action, however, Reagan advanced policies that were almost entirely disconnected from the report’s sense of urgency and its specific recommendations:

[Italics are original; bold is added here for emphasis.]

State and local officials…have the primary responsibility for financing and governing the schools, and should incorporate the reforms we propose in their educational policies and fiscal planning…


The Federal Government, in cooperation with States and localities, should help meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped.


The Federal Government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the Nation’s public and private resources are marshaled to address the issues discussed in this report.

Related: Part 1 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” series, on the Presidential campaign theatrics of Common Core

None of this entered into Reagan’s actual policymaking. Instead, he insisted on changing the name of the core part of the ESEA law from “Title I” to “Chapter 1” – chapters are secondary to titles in federal statutes just as they are in books – in an apparent attempt to diminish symbolically the federal role. The change irritated Democrats, but it had little practical effect.

Reagan also persuaded Congress to establish a “block grant” program dubbed “Chapter 2” by asserting – as conservatives typically do – that federal policies on education were too prescriptive and heavy-handed. In reality, Title I/Chapter 1 always operated essentially as a block grant program. One would be hard-pressed to argue what a school could not do under Title I so long as it involved providing instruction to children or professional development to teachers.

(Not that people didn’t try. The list of “bad decisions” – e.g. the purchase of a swimming pool or lavish junkets by educators – with the use of federal education funds is long. Check out, for example, this 1969 report from the parent organization of the Children’s Defense Fund and from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.)

The problems with block grants though are both political and substantive. Politically, block grants have no constituency. At least Title I is allocated by a formula based on a school’s concentration of poor children. But in general, block grants are allocated according to population and the money is spread around very thinly. People pay ideological lip service to block grants but if you follow the money it’s a totally different story. Funding for Reagan’s signature Chapter 2 block grant program shrunk from about $1 billion in 1981 to less than $400 million in 1995.

Substantively, because the purpose of block grants is so broad, it is hard to get a handle on whether the federal government is getting an adequate return on its investment. Anyone can express dissatisfaction with a block grant because they have no clear and specific purpose. Some conservatives – particularly those that are more anti-federal government than they are pro-education reform – have argued both that there needs to be maximum federal flexibility and that states and districts are wasting billions in federal education funding.

Related: Part 2 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” series, on the politicization of data

You won’t find a bunch of success stories about the fabulous policies and systemic reforms that states and districts unleashed under Reagan’s states’ rights regime; there really weren’t any, at least not any that are memorable. On the 25th anniversary of A Nation At Risk in 2008, the Broad Foundation issued a report that aptly summed things up this way:

[Emphasis in bold added.]

While the national conversation about education would never be the same, stunningly few of the Commission’s recommendations actually have been enacted. Now is not the time for more educational research or reports or commissions. We have enough commonsense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools. The missing ingredient isn’t even educational at all. It’s political. Too often, state and local leaders have tried to enact reforms of the kind recommended in A Nation at Risk only to be stymied by organized special interests and political inertia. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools.

Enter President Barack Obama a year later who subsequently took that message to heart in advancing Race to the Top and other policies that threaded the political needle on the federal role in education policy. Once the 2016 campaign is over, the 45th President will have to decide whether they want to be remembered like Ronald Reagan is – as having only used the bully pulpit to talk about a problem – or like President Obama will be – as actually having done something about it.