Something very healthy is beginning to emerge from the recent surge of public debate on the quality of America's schools. It is not happening in Washington, where the posturing of President Reagan and the Democratic presidential hopefuls is exceeded only by the lethargy of Congress. It is happening in the state capitols. At the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association here, almost every governor I interviewed or heard speak had a story to tell about his plans to improve teacher pay, stiffen educational standards and increase financial support for the schools in his state.
The governors can rightly claim to have been ahead of the curve on this issue. Before the question of school quality became domestic topic A, they had chartered a task force from the Education Commission of the States to work on the problem. As North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D), who headed the project along with Delaware Gov. Pierre S. duPont IV (R) and IBM Chairman Frank Cary, said here, "Our goal was not to criticize but to recommend a plan of action."
Some of the most impressive efforts have come in states where the odds against success were greatest. In Mississippi, Democratic Gov. William F. Winter's response was to call a special legislative session, over the objections of many legislative leaders, solely on education. He organized a campaign for school improvement as intensive as any race for political office. With help from progressive business leaders, an advertising, direct- mail and phone-bank campaign was organized. The Jackson newspapers helped mobilize public opinion, and legislators felt the heat.
In two weeks, Winter said, a bill was passed for compulsory school attendance, statewide kindergartens, a 10 percent teacher pay raise and tougher certification standards, special scholarships for those training to become science and math teachers, mid-career programs for administrators, and consolidation of small school districts.
The same bill included "the biggest tax increase in the history of the state," a $100-million hike imposed at a time of high unemployment in the state with the nation's lowest per-capita income.
Winter said the reason the comprehensive and ground-breaking measure passed was that "the legislators had no place to hide." That is one of the real advantages of tackling this problem at the state level. State and local governments already provide 90 percent of the school dollars, and voters can see a link between tax hikes at the state level and improvements in schools in their own communities.
None of the governors believes the federal government should abandon its role in education. But they are not waiting on Uncle Sam-- let alone, Ronald Reagan.