10/16/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Dearth of Statehouse Mavericks

Lack of gutsy governors stagnating real education reform

Millions of children are now fully ensconced in another year at America's schools. Unfortunately for most families, the schools, classrooms, teachers, and school leaders are functioning in much the same manner as they did last year -- and five and ten years before that.

The hype and anxiety surrounding Common Core State Standards, No Child Left Behind and its reauthorization, and standardized federal testing has fueled yet another rhetorical battle over not only what ails schools and how to fix them, but what is the proper scope of the federal role in public education. Lost on too many citizens is a basic fact of political life for states in our federation: the best antidote for federal government intrusion is a strong governor.

Many of today's governors have, by virtue of their placid approach to legislative reform, ceded both the authority over and initiative in public education policy to the feds. This is in stark contrast to the strong-willed governors whose leadership seeded the modern-day education reform movement. When state leaders are weak, programs and policies emanate from "above" to forcibly supplant or supplement state programs. When governors are strong, they encourage, embrace, and even initiate grassroots activism that counters the entrenched special interests -- teachers' unions, school boards associations, and the like -- that typically keep progress from happening. Apathetic or timid governors wait for bills to reach their desks, allow critical-mass special interest groups to get organized before they take action, govern not by ideals but by poll favorability ratings.

In statehouses across the country, school children deserve to have the Winston Churchill-types in charge. Instead, our statehouses today host too many Neville Chamberlains.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's lack of strong leadership on education, declared one of his top priorities, has caused a stalemate that has embarrassingly failed to achieve any significant reform despite his party's full control of both houses of the state legislature. The otherwise popular Gov. Chris Christie has led New Jersey to only modest recent progress, showing himself to be more rhetoric than results. The state's takeover of Camden's failing schools is a solid (though unproven) move, but a tepid teacher evaluation program that allows union-controlled districts to mask real accountability, one of the most regulatory charter school laws in the nation, and -- despite promises years ago -- no school-choice scholarships for poor kids scores a win for the establishment in the Garden State, not for reformers.

Gov. Bob McDonnell campaigned as the education-reform governor of Virginia, but despite his parting shot of securing state-takeovers of failing schools and allowing Teach for America into the state, he still governs a state where a 15-year-old charter school law is so restrictive that only two of these innovative public schools are operating despite the overwhelming evidence that good charter schools can achieve dramatic success with students. The list goes on.

Allegiance to party over principle and the ultimate goal of securing higher political office surely is driving some decisions by governors to avoid fighting the tough fights. But a willingness to do battle, even at the cost of one's own political longevity, is what marks a truly courageous and effective leader.

The current dearth of mavericks in statehouses wasn't always so. Since the 1980s, strong and bold Churchill-type governors from both parties have been the driving force in America's effort to reform and strengthen the nation's public education system. Governors Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Bill Clinton of Arkansas embraced transformative changes, coalesced other strong state leaders into an outspoken force, and brought their efforts of reform to national prominence at a groundbreaking policy-making summit in Charlottesville, Va. Florida's Bob Graham, Mississippi's William Winter, New Jersey's Tom Kean, North Carolina's James Hunt, South Carolina's Richard Riley all played leading roles in a movement by state governors to improve the nation's schools. Leading Wisconsin's transformation of its public education system, 17 years ago Gov. Tommy Thompson noted the need for strong state leadership, saying, "We might get national standards eventually. But the only way it's going to happen is bottom up, through coalitions of states."

This bold state leadership continued into the 1990s. Gov. John Engler bucked his party and enormous opposition to equalize funding and permit its portability through a path-breaking charter school law and to initiate a public school choice program. Performance standards and accountability to those standards was heresy when Virginia Gov. George Allen decided that his state needed uniform measures to elevate education outcomes. Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge created a tax credit program to fund school choice scholarships and innovative public school programs, initiated vouchers for supplemental education services such as tutoring in reading and math, and secured a hard-fought charter school law. And Jeb Bush started his leadership of Florida to and through some of the deepest and broadest education policy changes in choice and accountability the nation has seen.

These strong leaders also created a climate that grew and supported maverick state legislators underneath them: senator Ember Reichgott Junge watched as Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich signed her charter school law, the nation's first; Wisconsin state assembly member Annette Polly Williams authored the nation's first voucher bill, designed for low-income families in Milwaukee, which with strong state support quickly became a focus of school-choice activism; and, Cleveland city councilwoman Fannie Lewis fought for 17 years to get a school-choice voucher program enacted, a program she then carried through as it got signed into state law and challenged by establishment-types all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she -- and Cleveland's families -- won.

Charter school laws, model state standards that pushed other reluctant states into the accountability discussion, vouchers, and policies touching on the once-toxic teacher-quality issue all were driven by strong governors. These governors were the real drivers of education reform, leaders who were in it for the long-haul. Such engagement led to myriad bi-partisan accomplishments of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, a cooperative can-do attitude that is all but absent today.

To be sure, some of today's governors hold the promise of becoming tomorrow's education reform leaders. Wisconsin's Scott Walker looked teachers' (and other) unions in the eye and didn't blink when reform was needed, and along the way expanded that state's voucher law and strengthened its charter school law. Mike Pence in Indiana and John Kasich in Ohio have built on the reforms they've inherited without apology, even acting so bold as to expand school-choice voucher programs. Delaware's Jack Markell seemingly has unleashed a no-nonsense education secretary with a directive to expand choice and seriously increase accountability of schools, despite his own hesitancy to put on the "reformer" mantle. And Louisiana's Bobby Jindal has set records for positive education reform lawmaking in education in a state where a devastating and unwelcome storm served as a catalyst for a new public education landscape.

Even in these states, however, parents are wondering whether it's just another round of wasted potential and foregone opportunity, or if the current generation of school children really will be better-schooled than the last.

Most of today's governors came in to office standing on a platform full of nice-sounding school reform, but only a very few have delivered anything worth talking about. Families that truly care about education policies that affect their children each day would be well-served to start distinguishing between state leaders that simply talk the talk and those that actually have the will and the guts to walk the walk.