Will K-12’s Decline Be a Dominant Issue in the 2024 Elections?

The Washington Post published columnist George Will’s opinion piece in the June 28, 2023 issue is about the alarming decline of K-12 becoming a dominant issue in next year’s elections.

After reminding readers that this is the 40th anniversary of the “alarming report” A Nation at Risk, Mr. Will made several notable points:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2022 shows that a decline in student scores that began in 2014 continues – just 13 percent and 20 percent of eighth-graders met U.S. history and civics proficiency standards. These were the lowest rates every recorded.
  • Only 33 percent and 36 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading and math. Eighth graders performed at a lower level, 31 percent in reading and 26 percent in math. Mr. Will points out that with four more years of school, students became less proficient.
  • Since the NAEP was first issued in 1992, in no year has a majority of white students been reading at grade level.
  • California’s most recent standardized test scores revealed declines in math and English language art while grades increased. The percentage of 11th grade Californians who received grades of A, B, or C in math was 73 while only 19 percent of 11th graders met grade-level standards. Mr. Will added that California’s high school graduate rate has risen as scores have fallen.
  • Will claims that equity grading and social promotions intended to combat meritocracy have left a wake of wreckage.
  • Will quotes two authors, Robert Pondiscio and Tracey Shirra of the American Enterprise Institute, who claim that “remote learning during the pandemic pried open the black box of America’s classrooms.”
  • According to Mr. Will, progressives portray “any public involvement in education other than paying for it as an infringement on the right of teachers to unabridged sovereignty over other people’s children.” It is natural that teachers’ unions agree with progressives.
  • Conservatives link the progressive and teachers’ unions’ positions as reasons to support school choice and charter schools.

Mr. Will concludes his opinion piece writing that “trust in public schools is probably lower today than at any point in U.S. history. If conservative politicians cannot make this a salient issue, they should find another vocation.”

Most of Mr. Will’s points are not new points. At the same time, the scores reported in the U.S. K-12 educational outcomes are factual, not fabricated. As he notes in the beginning of his piece, A Nation at Risk was issued 40 years ago. If our politicians and policymakers at the federal and state level have not been able to improve outcomes in K-12 education despite spending more money, it’s time for a bipartisan review and overhaul of the system. While we may have more examples of what doesn’t work, we have examples of what works. Mississippi’s improvement in reading scores by implementing a phonics-based reading program is notable, particularly given their K-12 spending levels compared to other states.

A friend of mine with decades of experience as a high school teacher and principal frequently cites the administrative bloat and bureaucracy created over the past four decades as hindering the ability of teachers to effectively do their jobs. Planning an overhaul by focusing on teaching as the number one priority could be a useful exercise. Eliminating unnecessary administrative positions and regulations would free up funding to increase teacher pay, a frequently cited reason for high turnover rates in the profession as well as fewer college students with interests in teaching.

While it’s clear that the status quo, however you choose to define it, has failed us; it’s time to call for positive changes in a system that once was the envy of the world. Insisting on positive change and holding the policymakers and education community accountable is our only option. I hope that the decline in our educational outcomes becomes an issue in the 2024 elections and every two years after that until the tide changes. I also hope that we succeed in solving a problem that has been with us for more than four decades.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence