Friday, March 2, 2012

Reagan and the shift toward choice in American education

While researching Ronald Reagan's role in the emigration of a group of Russian Pentecostals, I was interested to learn that one of the central religious freedoms being demanded by the Chmykhalov family was the right to home-school their children.  The AP reported that this had resulted in Peter Chmykhalov being jailed "several times" and his some of children being "forcibly brought to government-run schools." (Russian Pentecostals given roaring welcome)

In light of recent assaults on parental rights originating from within the American education system, I thought it might be interesting to explore what kept us from reaching the point of school Food Police decades ago.  Specifically, I was interested to discover whether Reagan played any role in the American home schooling movement.

I was quite surprised to read in the Economist that when Reagan became president, it was actually illegal for parents teach their own kids in most of the U.S.!  (George Bush’s secret army) While Reagan was involved in fighting for some educational reforms, I could not find any evidence that the former president actually spear-headed the homeschooling movement.  It seems home schooling really came of age in the early 1990s behind the political power of the Religious Right.

One thing that is clear, however, is that Reagan unambiguously campaigned in 1980 on shaking up the educational establishment.  Specifically, he had pledged during that campaign to abolish the Carter-created Department of Education--a pledge which, regrettably, was rather quickly backed away from.  (York congressman possible education chief for Reagan) Advisers at the time said (and I am inclined to believe) that the Dept. of Education lingered on not because Reagan was insincere in his desire, but rather that he realized that as a practical matter if he tried to pursue everything he wanted, he'd end up with nothing.  Reagan found the DOE had the support not only of the Democrats, but of an entrenched special interest group (i.e., the NEA).  He simply felt there were more pressing matters that had to be dealt with first. 

Reagan's softening on the issue of department abolition seems to have represented a tactical adjustment, not a strategic flip-flop.  According to one 1980 editorial:
The advisers say the Reagan people plan to move quickly to rewrite controversial federal regulations on bilingual education, sex discrimination, affirmative action and education of the handicapped to make them less costly and more flexible.

Reagan is also expected to revive the campaign for tax credits for parents  who send their youngsters to private and parochial schools, an idea that was defeated two years ago by the Democrat-controlled Congress, and even to establish some form of national “voucher” system.  Under the system each parent would receive a voucher equal to the value of a public school education, which they could use as they saw fit.(Editorials: Department of Education)
Further proof of Reagan's attempts to shake up the national educational policy, were evidenced in his first choice for Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, who believed,“the desires of parents should always take precedent in the education process.” (Bell outspoken on school issues)

Indeed, the Democrats of his day recognized just how much of a threat Reagan's policies were to their ideological domination of the educational system.  Sen. Ted Kennedy charged that Reagan was unwilling to offer "real solutions" (i.e., he was unwilling to give Teddy and his NEA pals as much money as they wanted to do whatever they wanted with it) and instead presented the American public with:

a witches’ brew of tax breaks for segregated schools, tuition tax credits for private schools, education vouchers, school prayer, and unremitting attacks on public school teachers’ unions. (Fritchey, Reagan’s education stand pleases foes)
The NEA's board of directors gave Democratic Senator Alan Cranston a standing ovation for hyperbolic demagoguery that would've made Barack Obama proud.  Cranston lamented Reagan's attempt to "slash" aid to public schools and college students.
Just now, when we need a renewed effort to do even more in education, unfortunately we find ourselves facing a Ronald Reagan who is seeking to reverse the commitment of our country to doing what must be done in public education,” he charged.  For the first time that I ever know of, we face the possibility that only the children of well-to-do parents will be assured an opportunity for a higher education in our society. (Reagan education policy opposed by NEA leaders)

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