Forty-one years ago, under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, the National Commission on Excellence in Education found “a nation at risk.” 

If​ ​an​ ​unfriendly​ ​foreign​ ​power​ ​had​ ​attempted​ ​to​ ​impose​ ​on​ ​America​ ​the mediocre​ ​educational​ ​performance​ ​that​ ​exists​ ​today,​ ​we​ ​might​ ​well​ ​have viewed​ ​it​ ​as​ ​an​ ​act​ ​of​ ​war.​ ​As​ ​it​ ​stands,​ ​we​ ​have​ ​allowed​ ​this​ ​to​ ​happen​ ​to ourselves…. We​ ​have, in​ ​effect,​ ​been​ ​committing​ ​an​ ​act​ ​of​ ​unthinking,​ ​unilateral​ ​educational disarmament.

– A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, April 1983

The commission knew an undereducated voting populace was an existential threat to our constitutional republic because those citizens lack critical thinking skills. An MIT professor recently resigned from his “dream job” because, in part, he “refuses to teach students who lack basic critical thinking skills.” Undereducated students are easily manipulated and weaponized against freedom.

The commission believed if they alerted Americans, the nation would rise to the challenge and demand changes in K-12 education because complacency would lead to disaster.

We failed. Problems in K-12 education have deteriorated since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.

Headlines over the last decade about America’s academic decline are alarming. US students rank poorly internationally in core subjects. Concerned parents have witnessed curriculum converted to indoctrination taught through the lens of social justice, institutional racism, and transgender ideology. Local school board meetings are ground zero for discontent.

The education industrial complex, including the National School Boards Association (NSBA), benefits from keeping local school boards marred in culture wars and parents in the dark to deflect from their decades of decline in student achievement.

The organic response to a chaotic, failing K-12 education system has been parents exercising educational choice options and fleeing the public school system. After North Carolina recently ushered in universal vouchers, though funding is not unlimited, a record number of families applied for opportunity scholarships this year. No one can blame them.

Even with educational choices expanding every year, most students are still in traditional K-12 schools, roughly 75% in North Carolina. That percentage will drop. Even if it drops to 50%, that’s still a huge number of students reliant on a system on which taxpayers spend billions. It will be at our peril if we abandon them to languish in a system that prioritizes culture wars over academic achievement. 

Now, there’s a new response — School Boards for Academic Excellence (SBAE). SBAE is a newly formed national nonprofit organization laser-focused on student achievement. The mission is to build a network of state-based organizations that empower student-focused school board members that prioritize academic excellence. SBAE is the antidote to the NSBA’s woke ideology.

As SBAE’s board chair, I’m proud to introduce our founding executive director, David Hoyt, who will lead the growing movement of groups that sprouted up over the last several years across the nation. SBAE and the state groups stand shoulder to shoulder with like-minded board members and parents offering help and support to those who want to return public education’s focus to teaching rather than indoctrinating kids.

For interested school board members and parents in the Carolinas, there’s an SBAE-affiliated group. Carolinas Academic Leadership Network (CALN) is the brainchild of the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina as well as the South Carolina Policy Council and the Palmetto Promise Institute in South Carolina.

Pre-COVID, 53% of North Carolina students were at grade level or above in math, which is still too low. However, post-COVID, the percentage plummeted 20 points to crisis levels. While South Carolina students have performed a little better, it’s not by much. Despite South Carolina’s 84% graduation rate in 2023, only 29% of those graduates were deemed ready for college or a career.

With each generation, we are weakening our country. And we may never get a better opportunity than today. National and state school board associations are at odds with parents and many school board members.

Local school boards drive academic policy. They have the power to ensure schools are producing the well-educated workforce we need. SBAE and CALN’s mission is to make academic achievement the highest priority through professional development and networking opportunities.

Like-minded school board members represent our best hope of turning the tide and ensuring that academic excellence is once again the hallmark of America’s education system.

SBAE and affiliated groups realize this is an ambitious and challenging long-term plan, but we’ve done this before. The school choice movement has been four-plus decades in the making. We can do it again to save the students in traditional K-12 and our constitutional republic. Too much is at stake for us to ignore. 

Amy Cooke is the board chairwoman for School Boards for Academic Excellence (SBAE) and the chairwoman for Carolinas Academic Leadership Network (CALN).