WASHINGTON — In 1981, Ronald Wolk was about to launch a national newspaper on education when one of his reporters called on deadline with a scoop: She had obtained a Reagan administration memo outlining a plan to push the year-old Education Department out of the Cabinet and sharply limit its role in American schools.
Mr. Wolk cursed with glee and ordered her back to the newsroom to start writing.
That September, the debut issue of Education Week revealed in a banner headline that Education Secretary Terrel Bell was urging a ‘‘far-reaching shift’’ to effectively dismantle the agency he headed. At its outset, Mr. Wolk’s paper had broken a national story at the heart of the field he believed was in need of a new level of scrutiny.
‘‘And that made us,’’ Mr. Wolk recalled recently. ‘‘I mean we just -- boom, we landed.’’
Mr. Wolk, the first editor in chief and publisher of Education Week, died April 28 at a hospice center in East Sandwich, Mass. He was 86, and the cause was congestive heart failure and kidney failure, said a daughter, Lauren Wolk.
The newspaper he founded and led for 16 years became a leading institution in education journalism, keeping school officials from coast to coast informed about ideas and trends from prekindergarten through high school.
Education Week began just after creation of the Cabinet-level Education Department and just before release of the Reagan administration’s seminal 1983 report, ‘‘A Nation at Risk,’’ which sounded alarms about a ‘‘rising tide of mediocrity’’ in public schools and spawned endless reform debates.
‘‘It was perfect timing,’’ said Chester Finn Jr., an assistant education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. ‘‘He met a real need. There really was an explosion of activity, ideas and argument. There was a lot to report.’’
Mr. Wolk steered the newspaper and its parent nonprofit organization, Editorial Projects in Education, while southern governors such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee were making school improvement a major focus of state policy and economic development. There was growing talk of the need to set standards for what students should learn, and a desire to gauge progress in states and school systems through metrics, including standardized tests.
‘‘There was no source of information like Education Week when we started,’’ Mr. Wolk said in January in an interview for an oral history. ‘‘Most of the people who were getting any information in education were . . . getting it from their local newspapers.’’
He made it a goal to provide context and data for the national debate. In 1997, Mr. Wolk’s team began publishing an annual report called ‘‘Quality Counts’’ that tracks state efforts to improve schools. Mr. Wolk told a PBS interviewer that year that the findings were sobering.
‘‘I think you have to start worrying about a nation in which fewer than half of its students can read proficiently, and fewer than that can do math proficiently,’’ he said. ‘‘These kids are going into a high-tech information society . . . . And if we can’t get a higher percentage of our students achieving, I suspect that this nation is in for real trouble.’’
Ronald Alfred Wolk was born in Pittsburgh on Feb. 28, 1932, the son of a steelworker who left the family when Mr. Wolk was a boy. Neither of his parents went to college, but he did on the advice of an English teacher who spotted his potential and paid his application fee to Westminster College in Pennsylvania.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Westminster in 1954 and a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University in 1955. After a stint in Army intelligence, Mr. Wolk worked as an education editor for a small newspaper in upstate New York and became editor of Johns Hopkins University’s alumni magazine.
In the early 1960s, he became involved with a group called Editorial Projects for Education, the precursor to Education Week’s parent organization. Mr. Wolk conducted research for that group about information sources available to higher education leaders, leading to a report that set the stage for creation of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1966.
For a time, Mr. Wolk was a special assistant to Milton Eisenhower, the president of Johns Hopkins and brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also worked for the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education under the former University of California president Clark Kerr. From 1969 to 1978, Mr. Wolk was vice president for university relations at Brown University.
He then became president of Editorial Projects in Education and moved to Washington. At the nonprofit, he helped conceive a publication for the K-12 sector akin to the Chronicle’s coverage of colleges and universities. ‘‘Chronicle of Lower Education’’ was the working title, Mr. Wolk said, until settling on the name Education Week.
Mr. Wolk secured crucial early support from the Carnegie Corp. and other philanthropies.
In the newsroom, Mr. Wolk was known as a demanding, intellectual and occasionally irascible editor.
‘‘He liked playing with ideas, how the ideas animated what we needed to be writing about,’’ said Virginia Edwards, whom Mr. Wolk recruited and who served under him as the top editor starting in 1989.
There were analyses on literacy in America, follow-ups to ‘‘A Nation at Risk,’’ deep dives on inequities in school funding, and examinations of school voucher proposals, crucial Supreme Court rulings, the nascent charter school movement, teachers unions and more.
Mr. Wolk stopped working full-time at Education Week in 1997 but remained chairman of the nonprofit board until 2011.