How the Reagan Administration Used "A Nation at Risk" to Push for School PrivatizationHistorians in the News
tags: Ronald Reagan, education reform, school vouchers, education history, school privatization
In April 1983, a commission convened by President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, Terrel H. Bell, released a landmark report about the nation’s public education system, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” It famously warned:
Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. … 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.
As I wrote in 2018, the authors used statistics to paint a disturbing picture of the country’s public system, though it turned out that a lot of the data was cherry-picked to confirm previously decided conclusions about the awful state of America’s schools. The piece I published, by James Harvey and David Berliner, explained how the report — and its aftermath in waves of school reforms — was bungled. It said, for example:
The bumbling began immediately. Reagan startled the commission members by hailing their call for prayer in the schools, school vouchers, and the abolition of the Department of Education. The commission hadn’t said a word about any of these things.
Indeed, the commission had been launched by then Secretary of Education Terrell Bell to fend off the president’s 1980 campaign proposal to abolish the department. In its report, it laid out a strong argument in favor of a vigorous federal presence in education to support vulnerable students, aid higher education and research, and protect civil rights. These suggestions were quickly relegated to the dust bin of history.
Here is a piece about how the report was created and its impact. It was written by Harvey, who was a senior staff member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which wrote “A Nation at Risk”; Harvey contributed to it. He retired in 2021 as executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, a nonprofit organization that supports its members of approximately 100 school superintendents from 30 states.
By James Harvey
I recently came across Stephen Weir’s “History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them” and looked through it to see if “A Nation at Risk” and the 40-year educational disaster that is the modern education reform movement following its publication made the cut. Inclusion in his list, Weir wrote, demanded “idiocy” on a scale that “exacted a very high price, in lives or livelihoods.” Compared to such appalling blunders as Napoleon’s 1812 decision to invade Russia, the little 36-page report that was “A Nation at Risk” was very small beer and wasn’t included. But just as most of Weir’s “worst decisions” rested on ignorance and pride, so too did the rhetoric and recommendations of “A Nation at Risk.”
The public and policymakers, by and large, have gone along for the ride.
There were at least three problems with what the commission finally produced. First, it settled on its conclusions and then selected evidence to support them. Second, its argument was based on shockingly shoddy logic. And third, it proposed a curricular response that ignored the complexity of American life and the economic and racial divisions within the United States.
It is unfortunate that a straight line can be drawn from “A Nation at Risk” to the culture wars now consuming American public schools. The line runs as follows:
An undertow trashing schools and government. The report, while putting education near the top of the national agenda, has served as an undertow helping undermine confidence in educators and public schools while trashing government generally. The argument of wholesale school failure has been an essential bulwark of the effort to privatize public education by diverting public funds into school vouchers and unaccountable charter schools, particularly the scandal-plagued for-profit charter sector.