Three decades ago the country was governed by sharply divided government. A newly elected president, George H.W. Bush, faced larger congressional majorities of the opposing political party than those faced by any other elected American president. He offered in his inaugural address an extended hand and began working with the Congress on everything from the budget to the environment, from trade to taxes, and from energy to education.

He recognized that state and local governments have a predominant role in education —determining curriculum and graduation requirements, selecting teachers and raising well over 90% of the funds for elementary and secondary education. He was determined to make a difference by working with state governors, Republican and Democrat, to produce what he often referred to as a renaissance in education.

For only the third time in the country’s history, a president invited the nation’s state chief executives to convene for the President’s Education Summit with Governors 30 years ago this week. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt had held summits with governors to discuss the conservation of natural resources in 1908 and a series of federal-state issues in 1933.  

President Bush personally selected the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as the site for the two-day gathering. He rejected holding the summit at the White House where the previous two summits with governors had been held because he wanted to send a signal that education was a national problem that would benefit from a federal-state partnership. Moreover, he admired Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia and Jefferson’s deep commitment to education.

Successful gatherings are most frequently the product of careful preparation. This one was no exception. Months in advance Bush signaled to the National Governors Association, or NGA, that he was eager to collaborate closely with them in planning its agenda. As his assistant for economic and domestic policy, I worked with the co-chairs of the NGA Task Force on Education, Carroll Campbell (R-South Carolina) and Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas). In numerous meetings and extended discussions, we developed an agenda with working sessions on the appropriate roles of the federal and state governments, revitalizing the teaching profession, shaping the learning environment for students, choice and restructuring, strengthening access and excellence in postsecondary education and a competitive workforce and lifelong learning.

The governors were joined by virtually the president’s entire cabinet demonstrating the full commitment of his administration. The discussions were candid, constructive and respectful. The negotiations that produced a detailed five-page joint statement ended at 3 a.m. and included a long-term commitment to establish a process to set national education goals, seek greater flexibility and enhanced accountability in the use of federal resources to meet those goals, undertake a major state-by-state effort to restructure our education system and to report annually on progress in achieving those goals. The following day the president and all the governors embraced the joint statement.

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The education summit did not identify winners and losers while accommodating the interests and concerns of Republican and Democrat governors. It did not disparage the current efforts that were making some progress but built upon them. It candidly acknowledged the size of the task ahead and that it would take at least a decade or more to achieve ambitious goals.  

When the summit concluded its commitments were not forgotten. It was followed by negotiating six concrete goals that were announced in the president’s State of the Union Address the following January and a decadelong series of annual reports on progress toward achieving those goals. In working together at the summit and in establishing those goals, George Bush and Bill Clinton earned each other’s respect and began a relationship that would last a lifetime. Although neither knew it at the time, these two would serve as president during the 10-year time horizon envisioned by the goals.

The President’s Education Summit produced incremental progress on an enduring national challenge. That progress benefitted from both political parties and all levels of government working together building on a solid foundation that was produced by many hands. The work the summit outlined has not ended but the goals it articulated, the standards it helped to establish and the accountability it enhanced have served the nation well.

Roger B. Porter is the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University and served as Assistant to President George H.W. Bush for Economic and Domestic Policy from 1989-1993.

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