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How to Solve the Education Crisis - It's all about who you elect
1/9/2014 2:39:23 PM

By Jeanne Allen & Kara Kerwin

Thanks to assessments of educational progress, we know where our children stand compared to other communities, states, and even nations. Now that the holidays are behind us, it's time to take stock of how we are doing, and set resolutions for the New Year.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students are lagging behind. 2012 results show the U.S. is on a rapid decline, ranking 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science. On the Nation's Report Card (NAEP), only 34% of 8th graders are proficient in reading and math.

Where have we gone wrong? Quite simply, we've elected the wrong people.

In response to children demonstrating less proficiency, the Governors of the 1980s started a movement that reduced federal meddling in state policy and united both parties over issues of choice and accountability. Then-Governors Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Bill Clinton of Arkansas embraced transformative changes, coalesced other state leaders into an outspoken force, and brought their efforts to national prominence at a groundbreaking policy-making summit in Charlottesville, VA. Governor Tommy Thompson partnered with Democratic and African-American lawmaker Polly Williams to enact the nation's first voucher program for the neediest children.

Bold leadership in the 1990s saw then-Michigan Governor John Engler buck his own party to equalize school funding, permit parent choices, and enact a charter school law that remains a national model today. Standards and accountability were heresy when Virginia Governor George Allen decided his state needed uniform measures to elevate outcomes. Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge created a tax credit program to fund school choice scholarships and secured a hard-fought charter school law. And Jeb Bush of Florida oversaw some of the deepest education policy changes the nation has ever seen.

That fervor ignited a movement of educators, parents, and community leaders who started schools, turned around existing ones, became legislators, and created innovations in learning and school delivery, including digital learning. What was once a fast and furious run for school reform from the ground up has come to a steady crawl, incapable of reversing educational decline.

When governors are strong, they counter special interests - teachers unions, school boards associations, and the like - that inhibit progress. When governors are weak, policies emanate from "above" to supplant state programs. Apathetic or timid governors wait for bills to reach their desks, allow special interests to organize, and govern by favorability ratings. The result is a lack of commitment to executing much needed changes.

For example, charter schools are known to be hotbeds of innovation or providers of quality education. Despite numerous studies attesting to their progress in closing the achievement gap, charter schools are still expanding in low numbers in some states, and exist with policies that hamstring those who wish to open them in others. It sounds dramatic that 42 states and D.C. have charter laws, but only half that number have any vibrant charter environment that can help a small number of students. State leaders are key to creating more options, yet laws that need to be improved are compromised from the first discussions.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Bashear recently remarked that his state didn't need charter schools because the education system was improving, despite evidence to the contrary. He was confusing activity and effort with results, a common problem among today's leaders.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett once declared education a top priority but has achieved little reform despite his party's full control of the state legislature. Even with Chris Christie, New Jersey moved forward in requiring teachers be evaluated as a condition of employment, yet the final compromise with unions resulted in more ways to skirt the system.

Some state officials show promise of becoming tomorrow's reform leaders. Wisconsin's Scott Walker looked unions in the eye and didn't blink. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal has set records for positive education reform lawmaking in a state where a devastating storm served as a catalyst for a new public education landscape. Both have state legislatures excited to join them in fighting the status quo.

Make no mistake - the U.S. education system remains in crisis and the achievement gap between poor and minority students and the rest of society remains wide. Most people are aware that the solution is not more money or superficial changes. The key to solving the crisis is electing governors who understand that they have the power to change a system, and holding them accountable to do so. With 36 gubernatorial elections underway in 2014, we should all resolve to make education our top priority when we take to the polls in November.

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