In Florida, the state legislature, meeting in special session, recently approved $233 million in new taxes to underwrite a merit pay plan for teachers, a longer school day, tougher graduation requirements for students and more emphasis on math and science.
In Texas, Gov. Mark White (D), frustrated by his inability to win legislative approval of a salary increase for teachers, has appointed a blue-ribbon commission, headed by businessman H. Ross Perot, to make a thorough study of the state's schools.
In Arkansas, Gov. Bill Clinton (D) has taken a family approach by appointing his wife, Hillary, to head a commission that is studying everything from the state's educational financing system, declared unconstitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court, to quality of schools.
From Virginia to California, state governments have taken the message of a string of recent reports decrying what the National Commission on Education Excellence called "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American education and are now leading the drive to find solutions.
Education experts say an unprecedented amount of activity is under way across the country, and that it differs from past years, in scope and by the fact that education proposals are being tied to the future economic health of the nation.
At the same time, states are raising taxes to pay for it all.
And states that have not acted have either appointed commissions or begun discussions on far-reaching changes.
The connection between education and economic vitality was a central part of the opening session of the National Governors Association meeting here today, as the governors unanimously approved a resolution calling for stepped-up emphasis on educational improvements and the creation of partnerships--especially with business--to carry out those changes.
At the same session, Education Secretary T.H. Bell praised the governors for their leadership on education, while offering a defense of the Reagan administration's support of merit pay for teachers. Bell said the issue is misunderstood around the country and likened it to the college system of academic rank.
While national politicians have been debating the implications of the recent reports on education, one of which was headed by North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt (D), governors and other state officials have been acting.
Over the past five years, 13 states have altered certification standards for teachers, 23 have begun to develop new curriculums and 37 have started some kind of competency tests for students, according to NGA figures. In the past two years, 20 states have acted to increase mathematics requirements, while 11 have boosted science requirements.
Those statistics indicate that the states were involved in improving schools well before the issue became elevated to center stage in the 1984 presidential election campaign. But a Washington Post survey of selected states shows that the educational reform movement has accelerated recently.
"This is a national problem they can't solve in Washington," North Carolina's Hunt told the governors today. "We must solve the problem primarily at the state level."
Thus, while the question of a federal role remains at issue, the states are doing things on their own.
Florida approved its plan last month, California has just adopted legislation called for a master teacher program plus tougher graduation standards and, late last week, Virginia adopted a new plan that is being hailed by education experts there as one of the most significant in the state's history.
Even in the face of gloomy economic conditions and tight budgets, state officials have shown a willingness to raise taxes to finance improvements. "Every governor I've talked to here has told me he is willing to ask for additional taxes for education in his state," Utah's Scott M. Matheson (D), NGA chairman, said today.
At the same time, state governments now are attacking the problems more comprehensively. Where once states fought over the issue of raising teachers' salaries or over what children should learn, they are now trying to change nearly everything at once.
When Mississippi approved an educational overhaul last December, much of the attention focused on the institution of statewide kindergarten classes. But the package also included a 10 percent pay raise for teachers, teacher certification standards and new accreditation standards for the schools based on the performance of students.
"It was the most sweeping overhaul in the history of the state . . . at a time of high unemployment and a poor economy," said Gov. William F. Winter (D), who organized for the battle in the same way he put together his political campaigns, with grass-roots teams, telephone banks and an advertising blitz.
In Tennessee, Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) tried, but failed, to win support for one of the broadest packages in the country. His 10-point plan covered everything from more math, science and computer instruction to a series of new programs for vocational education. Alexander intends to keep fighting.
One reason for the comprehensive approach is a recognition by the governors that it is possible to raise taxes for education only if they can demonstrate to taxpayers that specific improvements will result.
"I'd be prepared to recommend a tax increase for the schools even in these economic times, but only if we can improve educational standards and equalize the funding among the districts," said Arkansas' Clinton, who expects to propose what he called the "most significant improvement in education in the state in a generation" with the help of his wife.
Even states with critical budget problems have boosted spending on edcuation this year, led perhaps by Michigan, which increased aid for kindergarten through grade 12 by 26.7 percent.
Perhaps most significantly, education overhaul is being linked to the future economic health of the nation.
In Flordia, Gov. Robert Graham (D) used the slogan, "Education Means Business," to help sell his costly package, while in Texas, Democrat White is using a Republican business leader to make the argument that an improved educational system is the only way the state can make the transition from an oil-based economy to a technology-based economy.
White said in an interview here that Dallas businessman Perot, who supported Bill Clements, the man White defeated, is working full-time on the commission, visiting schools, preparing for public hearings and drumming up support for whatever improvements his group may recommend.
"We've been relying on oil and gas as our basic resource," White said, "but now our basic resource will be the minds of the people."
One note of caution came from Wisconsin Gov. Anthony S. Earl (D). "The education issue is such a prickly one because people understand that what the commission reports said was true," Earl said. "But to begin to turn it around will take a lot more than appointing commissions."