MOBILE, ALA. -- Ever since the nation's governors began their concerted push for reform and improvement of American education in the 1980s, they have battled a strong tide of skepticism. At each step of the way the cynics have said they were long on political rhetoric and short on performance.
When they joined President Bush at last September's ''education summit'' in Charlottesville and committed to reaching six ambitious national goals for education by the year 2000, the hoots of derision almost drowned out their statement.
The skepticism always has struck me as unjustified. What has been striking in talks with governors of both parties in the past decade is their near-universal passion for education, their conviction that what happens in the grade-school classroom and college lecture hall will determine the future of their citizens and their states.
The movement was launched by governors who themselves were beneficiaries of superb educations -- men such as Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, Arkansas' Bill Clinton and New Jersey's Tom Kean. But it quickly spread to include the plodders in the group as well as the thoroughbreds.
And it wasn't just words. In state after state, governors boosted education budgets and raised the taxes to pay for them, taking some heavy political hits in the process. Few of them got all that they wanted, but as a group, what they achieved in increasing the resources for education has been impressive. Between 1982 and 1989, discounting for inflation, per-pupil operating expenditures on public education increased by almost one-third.
And those extra dollars came overwhelmingly and increasingly from state and local governments. The federal government's share of the education dollar actually declined from 7 1/2 cents to just over 6 cents in that same span of time.
But the governors came to realize, along with the rest of us, that results were not improving as spending increased. So three years ago, they threw their weight behind a series of educators' recommendations for basic restructuring of schools and upgrading of the teaching profession and pledged to close the ''education quality deficit.''
At the Charlottesville summit, they not only set lofty goals for education performance but said they would issue annual report cards on progress toward those goals. Left unanswered, until their annual meeting here this week, was the question of who would do the grading on that progress.
Even one who has applauded the governors' work has to say that the decision they made here plays into the hands of the skeptics. The governors, with White House backing, rejected calls from the Democratic congressional leaders that the assessment board be constituted by statute and that it be a blue-ribbon panel, including business and civic leaders -- people not currently in public office.
Instead, they announced that the assessments would be issued by a panel composed of six governors (three from each party) and four administration officials. Congress was offered only an ex officio role, with four nonvoting members at the table. And the independent experts were consigned to an advisory or staff role.
The governors' reasons for keeping the scoring pencil in their own hands are understandable. Congress is the junior partner in education policy, and state officials understandably resent the implication that Capitol Hill should sit in judgment on how well the states are doing.
But the fact of the matter is that the panel of governors and administration officials cannot initially claim the credibility an independent education-assessment board would possess. The arrangement approved here specifically gives veto power to any three members of the 10-person voting panel. It looks suspiciously like an insurance policy for both the administration and the governors against any failing grades.
Governors such as Clinton and South Carolina's Carroll Campbell Jr., whose commitments to education are well established, maintain that is not their purpose. They insist that when the first of the report cards is issued in about 14 months, they will grade each state's education performance by the best set of quality measures available. In each year for the rest of the century, they swear they will gauge each state against its own previous standard -- whether it shows improvement or not. As better quality measurements become available -- and they are badly needed -- they promise they will be introduced.
As practical politicians, the governors all recognize that a ''bad report card'' in some future September can become a killer political issue for any of them facing the voters the following November. But they say they will not cheat -- or fudge the grades.
A great many parents, teachers and reporters are going to be watching. At this point, all of us have to be at least a little skeptical.