The original version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 

Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


edited 8/16/11 

When President Reagan died some enthusiasts proposed having his countenance carved into Mt. Rushmore. History will decide whether or not Mr. Reagan ranks as a great, or even good, president. But the desire to laud his accomplishments features a conspicuous omission: Mr. Reagan’s educational legacy. 

What is that legacy? Let’s begin with a look at his record as governor of California. While running for the governorship, Mr. Reagan shrewdly made the most of the Viet Nam War inspired disorder on University of California campuses.

For instance, he demanded a legislative investigation of alleged Communism and sexual misconduct at the University of California at Berkeley. He insisted on public hearings, claiming “a small minority of hippies, radicals and filthy speech advocates” had caused disorder and that they should “be taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown off campus — permanently”,[1]

He also set the educational tone for his administration by:

  1. calling for an end to free tuition for state college and university students, 
  2. annually demanding 20% across-the-board cuts in higher education funding,[2]
  3. repeatedly slashing construction funds for state campuses
  4. engineering the firing of Clark Kerr, the popular President of the University of California, and
  5. declaring that the state “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,[3]” 

And he certainly did not let up on the criticisms of campus protestors. His denunciations of them were both frequent and venomous. He called them “brats,” “freaks,” and “cowardly fascists.” And when it came to “restoring order” on unruly campuses he observed, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!” 

Several days later four Kent State students were shot to death. In the aftermath of this tragedy Mr. Reagan declared his remark was only a “figure of speech.” Adding that anyone who was upset by it was “neurotic.”[4] One wonders if he thought this should apply to the loved ones of the four innocent students that were killed by the Ohio National Guard?

Governor Reagan not only slashed California’s spending on higher education, he consistently and effectively opposed additional funding for basic education. This led to painful increases in local taxes and the deterioration of California’s public schools. Los Angeles voters got so fed up while picking up the slack that on five separate occasions they refused to support any further increases in local school taxes. The consequent under-funding resulted in overcrowded classrooms, ancient worn-out textbooks, crumbling buildings and badly demoralized teachers. Ultimately half of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teachers walked off the job to protest conditions in their schools.[5] Mr. Reagan was unmoved.

Ronald Reagan left California public education worse than he found it. A system that had been the envy of the nation when he was elected was in decline when he left. Nevertheless, his actions had political appeal, particularly to his core conservative constituency, many of whom had no time for”government schools.” 

In campaigning for the Presidency, Mr. Reagan called for the total elimination the US Department of Education, severe curtailment of bilingual education, and massive cutbacks in the Federal role in education. And upon his election he tried to do just that and more. 

Oddly, he also took steps to increase state power over education at the expense of local school districts. Federal funds that had flowed directly to local districts were redirected to state government. Moreover, federal monies were used to beef up education staffing at the state level. The result was to seriously erode the power of local school districts.[6]

As in California, President. Reagan also made drastic cuts in the federal education budget. In fact, over his eight years in office he diminished it by half. (When he was elected the federal share of total education spending was 12%. When he left office it stood at just 6%.) He also advocated amending the Constitution to permit public school prayer, demanded a stronger emphasis on values education and proposed federal tuition tax credits for parents who opted for private schooling. The later two initiatives stalled in Congress. And so far as increasing values education was concerned, that eventually misfired because of a lack of consensus on whose values were to be taught.

Mr. Reagan was far more successful in giving corporate managers unprecedented influence over the future of public education. Reagan’s avowed purpose was to make America more competitive in the world economy. Unsurprisingly, corporate executives dabbling in public education had no discernable influence on America’s competitiveness. But the influence of big business did undermine the power of parents and locally elected school board members. It also suggested that it was far more important for schools to turn out good employees than good citizens, much less decent human beings.

In California Mr. Reagan had made political hay by heaping scorn on college students and their professors. As President his administration’s repeatedly issued or encouraged uncommonly bitter denunciations of public education. William Bennett, the President’s demagogic Secretary of Education, took the lead in this. He toured the nation making unprecedented, unprincipled and largely untrue attacks on most aspects of public education. These included teacher certification, teacher’s unions and the “multi-layered, self-perpetuating, bureaucracy of administrators that weighs down most school systems.” “The Blob” was what Bennett dismissively called them. 

Predictably, Mr. Bennett made no mention whatsoever of Reagan’s massive cuts in education spending. Instead he repeatedly asserted that public education was not going to be improved “by throwing money at it.” He also scoffed at any suggestion that social ills and poverty limited educational possibilities. He characteristically used name-calling to deprecate that well-proven fact as “sociological flimflammery.”[7] But even as Bennett spoke, 11 million children were living in poverty, 275,000 children were in foster homes and some 100,000 children under age sixteen were homeless.[8]

Three years into his first term Mr. Reagan’s criticism of public education reached a crescendo when he hand picked a “blue ribbon” commission that wrote a remarkably critical and far-reaching denunciation of public education. Called “A Nation At Risk,” this document charged that the US risked losing the economic competition among nations due to a “... rising tide of (educational) mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” (The commissioners did not consider the possibility that US firms were increasingly uncompetitive because of corporate mismanagement, failure to look beyond the next quarter, failure to modernize their facilities, greed and short sightedness.)

After “A Nation At Risk” the nation’s public schools were fair game for every ambitious politician or self-important business boss in the country. Its publication prompted a flood of follow-up criticism of public education as “blue ribbon” and “high level” national commissions plus literally dozens of state panels wrote a flood of reform reports. Nearly all of them presupposed that the charges made by Mr. Reagan’s handpicked conservative heavy panel were true. Meanwhile, throughout this entire furor, parental confidence in the public school’s their children attended remained remarkably high.[9] Meanwhile, while constantly harping on the importance of public schooling, Mr. Reagan was quietly halving federal aid. 

This sums up Mr. Reagan’s educational legacy. As governor and president he demagogically fanned discontent with public education, then made political hay of it. As governor and president he bashed educators and slashed education spending while professing to value it. As governor and president he left the nation’s educators dispirited and demoralized. And as governor and president he systematically undermined teacher unions — in large part because they regularly supported Democrat candidates. (By the way, teachers were very reluctant to unionize and they would not have done so had they not been badly mistreated.)

Does this sound like a man whose countenance should bless Mt. Rushmore? You decide.


[1] Reagan Demands Berkely Inquiry; ‘Beatniks’ and ‘Radicals’ Scored at G.O.P. Rally 

WALLACE TURNER, Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: May 14, 1966. p. 14 (1 page)

[2][2] Gov. Reagan Proposes Cutback In U. of California Appropriation; Would Impose Tuition Charge on Students From State Kerr Weighs New Post 

WALLACE TURNER Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Jan 7, 1967. p. 14 (1 page

[3] Ronald Reagan Is Giving ‘Em Heck; Ronald Reagan is giving ’em heck “As a politician, Reagan is a great psychiatrist” Critical reporters are isolated by his staff 

Steven V. Roberts. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Oct 25, 1970. p. SM22 (6 pages)

[4] Op Cit.

[5] Half of Los Angeles Teachers Strike for More Aid From State

Steven V. Roberts. Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Apr 14, 1970. p. 31 (1 page) 

[6] Joel Spring, The American School: 1629 – 2004, McGraw-Hill, Boston 2004.

[7] These quotes are from a speech, “Lessons From Great Schools,” that Mr. Bennett delivered at Notre Dame University and which was reprinted in Reader’s Digest, November 1988. p. 122.

[8] David Berliner, “Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation,” a paper presented at the meetings of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, San Antonio, Texas, February 1992.

[9] Ibid.