School reform has a long and colorful history in the United States, with many fierce debates about change taking place over the decades. Issues have included such wide-ranging topics as funding, integration, and the merits of public versus private education for the millions of children in America's elementary and high school system. John Dewey (1859 - 1952), a founder of the philosophical approach known as pragmatism, was one of the leading educational theorists and his ideas continue to shape educational curricula and research in the United States. Dewey founded the famous Laboratory School at The University of Chicago, where many of his ideas on education were put into practice. In 1904 he moved to Columbia University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1929 but he remained politically active and continued to speak up about education reform. His theories emphasize the teaching of critical thinking and his major works include "My Pedagogic Creed" (1897) and "Democracy and Education" (1916).
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) campaigned for school reforms, saying: "The job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue." During the height of the civil rights movement, King said that while integrated education did not impact on white students, there was no doubt in his mind that the evidence showed school integration "does improve the performance of the Negro." King urged politicians to give more money to schools and called for a "new and creative link between parents and schools."
The debate about public schools versus private schools has been a central one to reform. Writing in the American School Board Journal, Marilee C. Rist proclaimed that "a powerful idea is gaining currency in public education these days called privatization." The notion of choice was also supported by the conservative Nobel-Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman in the 1960s. Friedman had argued for a public education system that would receive federal help in the form of vouchers which would allow students to attend any school they desired, including private ones. The voucher proposal gained powerful supporters, with President Reagan suggesting a plan that was rejected by Congress. President George Bush Sr. proclaimed that private school choice was crucial to his strategy for reform, although President Clinton went on to advocate solely public school choice.
During Reagan's administration "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" (1983) was published. The paper provoked a national debate about the quality and purpose of public education. The National Commission on Excellence in Education called for more rigorous standards at all levels of schooling, and recommended that colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement be implemented at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work." Widely regarded by many in the field to be the most influential book in the debate over choice is John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe's "Politics, Markets and American Schools" (1991), in which the authors make a strong case for private school choice. "Of all the sundry reforms that attract attention, only choice has the capacity to address America's educational problems. Reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways."
As part of the proposed reforms to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which came out of the administration of George W. Bush, President Obama championed the Race for The Top Program. This reform package was announced by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 when states were invited to compete for $4.3 billion of funding. To qualify they had to agree to evaluate teachers by student test scores, to award bonuses to teachers based on student scores, to permit more privately-managed Charter schools, and to turn around low-performing or failing schools. In the 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama urged Americans to "encourage innovation, imagination and creativity in order to win the future." On March 5th 2011, the president flew to Florida to celebrate an increase in test scores at a Miami high school with former governor Jeb Bush, one of the nation's most vocal proponents of conservative approaches to reform. However, teaching unions strongly opposed the reforms and concerns were voiced about handing over the future of American children to bureaucrats.