In August, 1980 Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Meridian, Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles down the road from where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
The chosen location for Reagan's initial campaign event was not coincidental. It was intended to send a strong message to white America that the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s were about to face a new racist counter-reformation if Reagan could be elected. Reagan's message focused on supporting "states rights" and opposing federal interventions to help the poor. New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert wrote in 2007:
Last year many were somehow surprised to find fresh evidence of Reagan's racism. Remaining skeptics are encouraged to visit this 2019 article from The Atlantic, which provides an audio clip of Reagan's conversation with Richard Nixon, wherein Reagan refers to an African delegation at the UN as monkeys unaccustomed to wearing shoes.
. . . . He [Reagan] was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.
And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.
Congress overrode the veto.
Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too. . . .
When Reagan took the presidential reigns of power in 1981, his K-12 education priorities centered on eliminating or maiming the recently-created U. S. Department of Education, pushing school prayer, turning federal education assistance to the poor into block grants that could be used as states saw fit, and creating federal tax credits or vouchers for private school choice.
Undergirding Reagan's agenda was a long-standing hostility to racial desegregation and federal equity efforts, including compensatory programs for the poor, the handicapped, and immigrant populations. Reagan's election marked the beginning of a counter revolution aimed to quash any and all threats to the white protestant power structure of the U. S, as well as fill all cracks in the insuperable wall of white privilege and white supremacy that protect America's foundational myths of equality and exceptionalism.
Reagan had come to Washington to proclaim a modern day gated version of the tribal Puritans' city upon a hill, and the GOP's rendition would be no less exclusionary, punitive, and hidebound than the first one established in New England in the 17th Century.
While Reagan conservatives were, otherwise, fixated on market solutions for every social problem, the 1980 GOP Platform "reaffirmed" a commitment for government funding of private schools, secular or otherwise, through federal tax credits to parents:
Federal education policy must be based on the primacy of parental rights and responsibility. Toward that end, we reaffirm our support for a system of educational assistance based on tax credits that will in part compensate parents for their financial sacrifices in paying tuition at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level.
By 1984, the Reagan's reelection platform called specifically for converting Title I, which is the umbrella for education programs to benefit disadvantaged, special needs, and immigrant children, into a massive school voucher program that would essentially eliminate public schools in disadvantaged communities. The platform declared, without apparent irony, that "[c]ivil rights enforcement must not be twisted into excessive interference in the education process."
Over the eight year of Reagan's presidency, the federal education budget went from 12 percent of federal spending to 6 percent.
It is noteworthy that the 1980 GOP Platform writers used the fig leaf of equity to cover an, otherwise, grossly naked wish that "low-income" families who were offered private school tax credits would choose to self-segregate in private schools aligned with the poor's unique "cultural and moral values:"
This is a matter of fairness, especially for low-income families, most of whom would be free for the first time to choose for their children those schools which best correspond to their own cultural and moral values.
The other big Reagan education priority of his first term aimed to shift federal education policy away from equality and equity initiatives begun in 1965 with ESEA. Instead, Reagan would pick up where Nixon left off by priortizing educational accountability for "excellence," as measured by standardized tests, the cheapest and most effective tool for justifying racial and class sorting. To sell testing accountability as a solution, however, he needed a problem that could be turned into a crisis with some effective propaganda and rhetorical massaging.
Diane and Checker to the rescue
By 1980, Diane was getting the intellectual respect that she had sought since talking her way in 1961 into an unpaid, intermittent staff member position at the conservative New York political magazine, The New Leader. Salary had not been an issue for Diane in 1961, since she had married money and New York political influence just weeks after graduating from Wellesley.
Diane's other part-time job with the Carnegie Foundation led to an interest in the history of New York City Schools. Having been rejected for the PhD program by the History Department at Columbia, Diane spent several years writing a historical narrative of the "school wars" within New York City's public schools, which she published in 1974 to good reviews.
With the power available only to the well connected, Diane was able to have her popular history of New York's public schools accepted as a dissertation by Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Science and Columbia's Teachers College, and in 1975 she was granted a PhD, even if it was not the one in History that she had wanted.
In 1978, Diane published The Revisionists Revised, a divisive broadside against a new generation of education historians whose work departed from the kind of sunny administrative school histories that, since the days of Elwood P. Cubberley, had turned a blind eye to any social problem that might cast shade on the seemingly unalterable narrative of white America's educational progress.
The academic community was shocked by the intensity of Diane's polemical attacks on economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, and social historian, Michael Katz, in particular, whose historical analyses of American education closely examined institutional and structural issues around class and race. Apparently concluding that the neoconservative historical narrative was at risk, Diane poured forth enough invective, ridicule, and distortion to leave most everyone other than conservative ideologues shaking their heads. David Tyack concluded his review thusly:
The revisionists seek to highlight what they see as basic contradictions between the present social system and professed beliefs in democracy and equality. In raising this issue-with all its ramifications of class, race, sex, the structure of organizations, and the nature of the political economy-revisionists have done a service to both scholars and policy makers. That their analysis has often been faulty I would readily concede. But Ravitch has not done justice to their insights and has not even served her own belief in liberal democracy by linking it so hopefully with the present forms of corporate capitalism. In her own way she has done what she criticized in her opponents, for she, too, has politicized history.
Even though her book sales suffered, the public emergence of Diane's hard right turn was timed perfectly for the Republican nomination of Ronald Reagan, whose vision of "morning in America" entirely overlooked the children who awakened to hunger every day and who spent their childhoods in underfunded, tracked, and oppressive schools that the privileged used to efficiently reproduce the inequalities of the larger society.
Neither Reagan nor Ravitch showed any concern that growing numbers of observers, both here and abroad, who could clearly see Reagan's "shining city on the hill" was still segregated, unequal, and discriminatory. Both showed the same disdain and hostility toward the social reconstructionist aim for school as a place to advance cultural inclusion, equity, equality, and social conscience.
Just after Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, Jr. convened a score of conservative culture warriors, academics, testing advocates, businessmen, and political hacks (Grover Norquist and Bill Bennett included) to hash out plans for a new organization, the Education Excellence Network, which would be funded by the Hudson Institute. They saw themselves as "voices in the wilderness, crying out for academic standards and a renewed commitment to rigorous teaching and learning" (p. 9).
Their cries were immediately heard by an attuned Reagan team, and by August 1981, the Reagan Administration had formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued its report in April 1983 entitled A Nation at Risk (ANAR).
ANAR painted a bleak picture of K-12 education that created a level of hysteria about the role schools played in national insecurity that hadn't been seen since the national hand wringing that had followed the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in 1957. As one reviewer put it, ANAR claimed that children were drowning in "a rising tide of [educational] mediocrity."
By the time the Reagan Administration issued its over-the-top scare document in 1983, Reagan had honed his message that the "crisis in education" had been brought on by too much civil rights enforcement:
The schools were charged by the federal courts with leading in the correction of long-standing injustices in our society: racial segregation, sex discrimination, lack of support for the handicapped. Perhaps there was just too much to do in to little time.
This racist narrative took hold in Washington and within the media, and Reagan's message resonated with a white America eager to set aside troublesome thoughts of social change in favor an education reform agenda aimed at getting "back to basics" in ways that could be measured by a system of testing accountability that was clearly racist in method and outcome.
In 1984 Finn and Ravitch offered their own polemical gut punch to schools with their book Against Mediocrity (foreword by Bill Bennett), which critiqued public schools' teaching of humanities. Three years later Ravitch and Finn delivered a screed against the schools' teaching of history with What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?.
By Fall 1984, it was clear that the standards and accountability movement was going to be an easy sell. Here's a clip from a November 1984 Kappan article entitled "The Dark Side of the Excellence Movement:" (p. 174)
At the same time these racist policies were going forward, Reagan was cutting the number of number of children covered under Title I, the federal program aimed to provide aid to the underserved. Between 1981 and 1984, ED records show that a half-million kids lost services (p. 176).
Ravitch and Finn, along with Bill Bennett, were rewarded for their rhetorical hit jobs against public schools with plum jobs at ED. Finn was named Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement under Education Secretary, Bill Bennett (1985-1988), and then Ravitch was chosen for the same position as Finn in 1991 under Reagan's successor, GHW Bush.
As head of the Research Division at ED, Finn and Ravitch had immediate access to reports and studies whose findings might be hazardous to the Reagan-Bush education reform agenda. The 1991 Sandia Report fell squarely into that category, and Diane was at Ground Zero when the successful suppression of the Report went down.
That story will comprise the final part of this circuitous journey, which will end with Diane's apology 29 years after the suppression of a research report that made clear the scandalous hoax that she helped create and perpetuate, and that caused so much permanent damage to generations of black and brown children.