A month ago, a prominent philanthropist described today’s education reform climate to me as “The Empire Strikes Back.” I had to acknowledge that 2018 capped off an extraordinary run for opponents of education reform. If only the American public understood how high the stakes are as we enter 2019.

Let’s recap some history. After A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983, America entered a three-decade era of initiatives aimed at boosting the effectiveness of our K–12 schools:

  • In the 1980s and 1990s, many states put grade-level standards and criterion-referenced tests in place to boost and monitor student learning, especially in the primary grades.
  • In the 1990s, the passage of charter, open enrollment, and voucher laws began to bring choices, innovation, and competition to the education mainstream. The charter movement in particular fostered diverse approaches to teaching and learning by empowering educators to assume direct responsibility for creating and leading autonomous public schools. 
  • In the 2000s, the focus turned to holding schools accountable. The Federal No Child Left Behind Act raised awareness of stark, enduring inequities by revealing large, persistent achievement gaps between different subpopulations. NCLB also sought to drive school improvement via a prescribed series of interventions.  
  • Between 2008 and 2015, that drive took new forms with the enactment of state teacher evaluation laws, the Race to the Top program, and greater emphasis on early childhood education.

This sequence of energetic reforms lost steam as controversy arose over the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests. There was broad, spirited grassroots push back against “nationalizing” education, which the U.S. Constitution has entrusted to the states. The pendulum had swung too far.   

Thirty-six years after A Nation at Risk, the country has come a long way. In the primary grades, American students have made significant strides in reading and math as documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP data also show some narrowing of achievement gaps between white, black, and Hispanic students. High school graduation rates have reached much higher levels—and the six-year college graduation rate has risen as well.

Today, education reform is turning away from nationalization and back towards greater state and community ownership of education. That’s mostly healthy—so long as we don’t discard the baby along with the bathwater. That’s the current battle.  

Over the past few years, the teachers unions and their allies have assembled a broad coalition, stoked by such people as Jitu Brown with the Journey for Justice Alliance, Diane Ravitch with the Network for Public Education, and Greg Jobin-Leeds with the Schott Foundation for Public Education. For instance, in Jobin-Leeds’s 2016 book, When We Fight, We Win!, he glorifies Karen Lewis, long-time head of the Chicago Teachers Union, for her take-no-prisoners war with that city’s mayor, its board of education, and the charter schools that the district authorizes. Though Chicago has sustained impressive system-wide gains, that hasn’t deterred defenders of the ancient regime from attacking reforms.

If the anti-reform coalition has its way, America will stop using test scores to evaluate performance, halt interventions into failing schools, and roll back the emphasis on performance and accountability. We will throw far more funding at schools that serve low-income neighborhoods without any means of making sure that it’s spent effectively. Such a rollback threatens to return America to where it was in 1983, even as we try to adjust to serving a greater diversity of students than ever before.

The stakes are high. In 2016, there were 72.4 million children under the age of eighteen growing up in America. Almost thirty million of them were living in low-income homes. On every measure, the achievement gaps between low-income students and their middle- to upper-income peers remain stark. That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 31 percent of children under age eighteen were growing up in homes with a single parent.  

In 2014, Education Week reported that the under-eighteen population became “majority minority” for the first time. Since then, most births have been among families of color. Add continued immigration and we see that American communities of all kinds are being reshaped by families of many different ethnicities, languages, and backgrounds.

As these statistics indicate, America’s school-age population has become incredibly heterogeneous. We have a more sophisticated, authoritative body of science and knowledge than ever before on which to design and deliver breakthrough teaching-and-learning options. To meet twenty-first-century realities, our public education systems must continue to transform themselves in ways that support a variety of distinctive, high-quality options for all students. But they must do so in ways that strengthen community ownership, embolden educators to lead, and equip parents to make informed choices.

In a December commentary entitled “Reform on the horizon,” Andy Smarick asked reformers to celebrate the beginning of a new era of education change, which will be led by “bright, enthused and civic-minded citizens.” As we start the new year, I share Smarick’s optimism for the future, but sincerely hope that we won’t forget all the progress that we have made and the lessons that we have learned. We simply can’t afford to remake the wheel right now.

With the right focus and priorities, 2019 can be the year that education reformers double down in our efforts to reinvent public education for the twenty-first century, not the year that we allow the clock to be turned back thirty-five years. But counteracting the forces seeking to set us back will require tough-minded advocacy, courage, and the conviction that we must steer a deliberate course towards continued improvement that gives central priority to expanding public school choice.

Benjamin J. Lindquist is president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a non-profit membership organization that serves 255 public charter schools with 123,000 students statewide.  

Ben Lindquist