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When National Security Threats Influence Education Policy and Politics

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How do new foreign policy threats and national security "shocks" contribute to big changes in education policy? And has the answer to that question changed in recent years? 

"An exploration of spillover effects: evidence from threat-induced education reform" by Joshua Bleiberg, a Ph. D. student at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, is a new study that examines connections between events with major implications for national security, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and subsequent activity in federal education policymaking such as passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, or and the passage of the original federal education law in 1965 in the midst of the Cold War. 

"The results here suggest that Congress considers education issues after the shock from a new foreign conflict," Bleiberg states in the study, citing a regression analysis as evidence for such a "spillover" effect. "The general public mood that causes this spillover contextualizes education issues as a response to the new conflict. In turn this could lead policy implementors to adopt an emergency mindset where education reforms were a part of the response to the larger crisis. An emergency mindset leaves little time to consider systematic problems with education systems and may privilege certain policies (i.e. privatization) or goals over each other."

Did we take particular interest in this study after the U.S. killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3? We did. However, it's important to stress—as Bleiberg did in a Monday interview—that despite the international fallout from Soleimani's death, the country is several steps from the kind of event or "shock" like the Sept. 11 attacks that in his view contributed to congressional passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. 

At a general level, however, such national security shocks "may result in policymakers treating education issues as a crisis," Bleiberg wrote in the study, which was published late last month in the Journal of Education Policy and used troop deployment statistics, congressional focus on education, and the passage of education laws from 1947 to 2015 for the analysis. The study also says there's evidence that a "spillover" from foreign policy threats into education occurs in part because shifting the focus from national security anxiety to other fields can serve to reassure the public. Such actions can underscore that officials are focused on creating a more positive future, the study notes.

Education has been a relatively bipartisan endeavor in the past, Bleiberg also said in an interview, a political dynamic that can help grease the skids for political action in the wake of such crises. 

And Bleiberg also highlights comments from officials like Rod Paige, the former secretary of education for President George W. Bush; Paige stated that "the events of September 11th didn't make an education bill less important, it made it more important. Education is a national security issue," referring to the passage of NCLB roughly three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Education can make sense for politicians to focus on after such shocks "because it has a positive framing, but also has to do with this idea of providing skills to people that could be useful either in the military ... [and] also a workforce that could contribute to long-term prosperity," Bleiberg said in an interview.

The 'Sputnik Effect'

The dynamic that Bleiberg is describing has been part of education policy and politics debates for some time. For example, the "Sputnik effect," which describes how the 1957 Soviet launch of a satellite helped lead to the passage of the National Defense Education Act that provided stepped-up funding to U.S. educational institutions, is a much-discussed instance of a dramatic shift in education policy. 

What about now, however? There's nothing indicating that the Every Student Succeeds Act passed Congress in 2015 due to some sudden new and dire foreign policy threat. And compared to five years ago, to say nothing of when NCLB became law in 2002, the polarized politics of Capitol Hill could make it much harder for any major education bill to pass even with some kind of new national security shock. 

Bleiberg responded that it's conceivable Congress could react to such an incident by increasing federal education funding, and that certain educational fields related to things like cybersecurity could get more attention. However, he also said the playing field has changed enough that the education policy response could easily deviate from the days of NCLB and the "Sputnik moment," and that major new initiatives or rewrites of current laws might not take place. 

"It's sort of hard to tell how the politics of that would come out," he said.

Photo: Mourners burn mock flags of the U.S. and Israel during a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, at the Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) square in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)


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