Hillary Rodham Clinton: Ed Reformer Since 1983


In over three decades of public service, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a proven champion for education reform.

“No more excuses. Let’s put our kids in first place.”

This is the challenge that Arkansas’ then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton posed to the people of Arkansas as chair of the Education Standards Committee, when she successfully championed a wide-ranging package of reforms to the state’s broken education system in 1983.

It’s also emblematic of the common-sense, outcomes-oriented approach to education reform that Mrs. Clinton has championed throughout her long career fighting for families and children across America — and the quality education that each one of them deserves.

Pushing for High Standards

“Our schools are not doing as good a job as they must. … While there may be many causes for our dilemma, there is only one solution. We Arkansans have to quit making excuses and accept instead the challenge of excellence once and for all.”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton, Arkansas Gazette (1983)

“Why should we accept goals, standards, and performance measures in business or sports but not in our schools? Can you imagine a successful CEO telling stockholders that their company has nothing new to learn from anyone and that it can’t be expected to improve in any case, because, after all, look who its employees and customers are?”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton, “It Takes A Village” (1996)

Establishing Benchmarks

“And where we need to hold accountable every member of the educational enterprise — parents, teachers and students. Each should be held accountable for the opportunity they have been given to participate in one of the greatest efforts of humankind, passing on knowledge to children.”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks at the University of Texas (1993)

Expanding School Choice

“I also hope that you will continue to stand behind the charter school/public school movement, because I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within the public school system to meet the unique needs of their children.”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton, NEA National Convention (1999)



The Arkansas Days

“Dragging Up the Rear”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Arkansas’ public education system was in crisis. It ranked at or near the bottom in nearly every metric — from high school graduation rates, to per-pupil spending, to teacher salaries. While TIME Magazine dubbed Arkansas the longtime “Dogpatch of the nation’s school systems,” another report put it in less euphemistic terms:

Though Arkansas was an extreme case, this crisis in education extended from coast to coast, as the entire nation found itself and its children inadequately prepared to adapt to the challenges of the coming 21st century. The U.S. Department of Education released a stunning report in April 1983, A Nation at Risk, warning that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Needless to say, it sent shockwaves across the country.

Despite the many political obstacles in their way, the Clintons knew that something had to be done to reform this broken system. When Bill Clinton returned to the governorship in January 1983, he immediately pushed the legislature to approve an educational standards task force, to which he then appointed Hillary Clinton as chair.

Time for Reform: No More Excuses

Arkansas Gazette, September 7, 1983

In the summer of 1983, the newly established Arkansas Educational Standards Committee toured each of Arkansas’ 75 counties soliciting advice and input from a diverse array of stakeholders — educators, parents, students, businesses, and private citizens alike.

Following the committee’s extensive research, outreach, and consultation with the legislature, chairwoman and First Lady Hillary Clinton delivered a comprehensive set of recommendations aimed at overhauling the state’s failing education system.

The Education Standards Committee’s recommendations included:

  • Upgrading Curriculum Standards & Course Requirements
  • Increasing Teacher Salaries, Possible Merit Pay
  • Establishing a Teacher Competency Assessment
  • Establishing Student Assessments in 3rd, 6th & 8th Grades
  • Mandating Smaller Class Sizes
  • Increasing the Dropout Age to 17
  • Making Kindergarten Mandatory
  • Increasing State & Local Investment in Education

The committee’s recommendations weren’t just empty rhetoric. They held schools, students, and educators accountable for meeting higher standards and improving outcomes across the board. Students who weren’t up to grade level in the 8th grade assessment would not move on to high school, ending the trend of social promotion that left unprepared students even further behind. Teachers who failed to pass a basic skills test would come under review, in order to ensure that every student had a quality teacher in their classroom. School districts that couldn’t or wouldn’t invest in a establishing a quality education for their students faced the prospect of consolidation.

The success of these reforms hinged on (literal) buy-in from all Arkansans, as public funds had to be raised in order to make Arkansas’ education a “dogpatch” no more. It took an incredible amount of work, but both Governor Clinton and Mrs. Clinton forcefully made the case for community involvement and investment in the state’s education system, and it paid off.

Arkansas Gazette: “Mrs. Clinton Outlines Plan For Upgrading Education, Says Opportunity at Hand”, 7/28/83

The Arkansas legislature approved a historic 1% sales tax increase (the largest ever!) dedicated to education — totaling over $150 million in new funding, 70% of which went to increasing teacher salaries.

A local poll at the time had public support for this tax increase at 65%, which is a testament to the hard work done by the committee in traversing the state and explaining why this comprehensive education standards package was worth the investment.

Mrs. Clinton won widespread praise for her leadership on the Education Standards Committee and tireless advocacy for Arkansas’ students. One state legislator had this to say…

“I think we’ve elected the wrong Clinton,” state Representative Lloyd George of Danville said, embarrassing Mrs. Clinton and evoking laughter and a few nods of agreement.

Passing these reforms was by no means an easy or always politically popular task. Hillary Clinton was famously called “lower than a snake’s belly” by a disgruntled librarian, one of the many colorful insults thrown her way by narrow interests who sought to maintain a failed status quo. Mrs. Clinton recalled in a 1989 profile that she “spent a lot of time being yelled at and cussed at and snubbed over the years,” due to her work in education. But she remained as confident as ever in her mission to improve educational quality, saying:

For all the pain and agony and terrible feelings it engendered, I’d do it again. You can’t sit down as I did, right here in this office, and read a hundred tests, especially the written paragraphs, and not be convinced that something had to be done.”

What a difference 12 years (and comprehensive education reform) makes…

Mrs. Clinton Goes to Washington

Setting National Standards

While Hillary’s work on the Arkansas Education Standards Committee was her first major policy achievement, it is far from her last. From Little Rock, to the White House, to the Senate, and around the world, Hillary Clinton continued to forcefully and successfully advocate on behalf of students.

In 1994, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was instrumental in helping the Clinton administration pass two important pieces of education reform legislation: “Goals 2000: Educate America Act” & “The Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994” (ESEA reauthorization).

Both bills passed with broad bipartisan support and backing from a diverse coalition of public and private stakeholders. For the first time, high national standards were established for our children, and our schools were given the tools they needed to meet these goals and ensure that every child in America had the opportunity to receive a quality education.

From the text of Goals 2000:

An Act
To improve learning and teaching by providing a national framework for education reform; to promote the research, consensus building, and systemic changes needed to ensure equitable educational opportunities and high levels of educational achievement for all students; to provide a framework for reauthorization of all Federal education programs; to promote the development and adoption of a voluntary national system of skill standards and certifications; and for other purposes.

It Takes A Village

In her 1996 book, “It Takes A Village,” Hillary outlined her vision for creating a society that empowers its citizens and invests in a better tomorrow — which starts with investing in its children. She dedicated an entire chapter to her work on education reform, aptly summing it up with the title: “Education = Expectations.”

From “It Takes A Village” by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Hillary continued her tireless advocacy on behalf of children and families, and the Clinton administration’s legacy of leadership on education is still felt to this day. The Clintons were central to expanding school choice and increased access to public charter schools throughout the 1990s — empowering families to make decisions that fit their unique needs and fostering a culture of innovation and accountability within our educational system.

As they did in Arkansas, the Clintons once again chose to take on entrenched interests and the political status quo in order to effect real, tangible, and impactful change for our students — this time for millions of children across the country.

“We need to make sure that as we move forward, we have greater accountability, we have higher standards, we have greater public school choice, and we do not allow ourselves to be pulled off track by false debates…”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton (1999)

Hillary Clinton went straight from the White House to the Senate after being elected to represent the state of New York in the 2000 election. She served on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and helped shape education policy for the 21st century. In 2001, she voted for the bipartisan education package “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” (NCLB), which reauthorized ESEA and expanded national benchmarks and standards.

In a 2006 re-release of her 1996 “It Takes A Village,” Clinton added updated notes to the text, including this on her work in the Senate on education:

“The standards and accountability movement has grown dramatically over the last decade. The No Child Left Behind Act became law, and it has laid bare the problems in many of our poorest, worst-performing schools. We can no longer say that we didn’t know that these schools were failing some of our most vulnerable kids.” (p.304)

Opening Doors To Education
Around the World

“Let us champion their right to an education”

When Senator Clinton became Secretary of State Clinton, she took her continued fight for women, children, and families to 112 countries around the globe. Secretary Clinton brought women’s rights to the forefront, specifically women’s access to education.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hugs a camper while participating in a Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) event for girls at the Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in Lilongwe, Malawi, Aug. 5, 2012.

At the State Department, Clinton made Office of Global Women’s Issues a top priority and created the Secretary’s International Fund for Women and Girls — a public/private partnership that distributes high-impact grants to NGOs. The Secretary worked with key partners like UNESCO and USAID to increase education funding and resources for children in some of the poorest regions around the world — invest in programs like Empowering Adolescent Girls to Lead through Education (EAGLE) and UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education.

Secretary Clinton also understood the power and importance of technology in education and made sure that the digital revolution made its way into more classrooms around the world. The State Department partnered with the White House to develop the TechGirls exchange, bringing girls from the Middle East and North Africa to meet with and learn from leaders in the U.S. tech industry in hopes of having more female leadership in STEM fields.

In 2012, when 15 year-old Malala Yousfzai was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan for simply daring to go to school, Secretary Clinton refused to let this act of violence and ignorance go unanswered:

“On behalf of Malala and countless other girls who share her dream, let us champion their right to an education — and let us expose and hold accountable those who would deny it. Together, we can build a world where opportunity and education are truly a powerful force for progress — for girls and boys, for men and women.”

What’s Next?

Ed Reform in 2016 & Beyond

Education advocates around the country hope Hillary continues to be the bold leader we’ve known her to be, and that she continues to fight to ensure that every child, no matter her or his background, receives a quality education from pre-school through college.


As a Democrat, a woman, a new mother, a former teacher, and a life-long advocate for public education — I am eagerly watching this presidential campaign. Education advocates around the country hope Hillary continues to be the bold leader we’ve known her to be, and that she continues to fight to ensure that every child, no matter her or his background, receives a quality education from pre-school through college.”

-Lea Crusey, DFER Acting Executive Director