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The Federal Role in Education Today: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go

In a recent blog, I pointed out that the nation is now behaving as if the states and federal government have much the same roles in education, creating conflicts which, left unresolved, are likely to get worse, with unforeseeable consequences for our schools.  But it has not always been this way.  In this blog, I will trace some of the recent history that has led to current confusion about the roles of different levels of government in education system, in the hope that understanding how we got here will provide helpful as we try to get ourselves out of this mess.  

The process began in the Clinton Administration, had an assist from the George H. W. Bush Administration, was given a powerful push forward by the George W. Bush Administration and then was given a big push over the fence by the Obama Administration.  The result was a transformation in the federal role in education.  Prior to the Clinton administration, the federal government's role had been to aid, assist, prod and push the schools, districts and states.  But the key word was always "aid."  There was no question about who was in charge and it was never, in that whole period, the federal government.  By which I mean that it was up to the government to offer financial aid to assist disadvantaged students, to help others develop curriculum that schools were genuinely free to use or not as they chose, to aid in the development of stronger vocational programs, but always of the schools' design, and so on.  In that entire period, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the federal government did not interfere in any important way with the design of the larger system and the way it worked, except with respect to school desegregation, which was the result of decisions made by the courts and not primarily the result of executive or legislative branch decisions.

That can hardly be said of what followed.  The Clinton administration, building on the work of the first Bush administration, started the states on the road to what would ultimately become the adoption of national standards for student academic performance, a radical departure from the status quo ante.  There is a direct line between that development and the creation in the Obama Administration of national tests to meet the standards.  The primary source of curriculum direction for American schools, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, has been the nation's textbook publishers, which are now in a race to produce curriculum and tests matched to the standards, thus putting in place the key elements of a national instructional system.

Tests have the most effect when there are consequences for the students taking them or for the teachers educating them before they take the tests.  In this case, fueled by bipartisan frustration with the apparent willingness of the education establishment to take federal funds in ever-increasing amounts over a long period of time without any apparent feeling of responsibility on the part of the establishment to use those funds to improve student performance, a bipartisan coalition in the Congress retaliated by imposing the rather draconian accountability scheme to be found in No Child Left Behind.  As the new design for American education emerged, it became clear that the institutional reforms just described could be made to fit together.  That is, the standards could be used as the driver of the accountability system and the tests developed to match the standards could be used to calibrate student progress, on the basis of which schools would be rewarded or punished, as required.  In the next logical step, the accountability system, in the first stage focused on schools, was essentially redesigned by the Obama administration to focus not on the schools, as had been the case under NCLB, but largely on teachers, providing the country with a national system for improving teacher quality, or so it was said.

But all these measures related to what the reformers saw as the established education system, a system the reformers saw as hugely expensive, but performing poorly for the students and, in any case, very hard to redirect—captured, in effect, by the people providing the services.  So the reformers decided that the best response would be to challenge the system by giving it direct competition, even as they were trying to reform the established system from the inside through the measures I've just described.  That impulse became the voucher and charter movements.

What I have just described constitutes a fundamental redesign of the American institutional system for elementary and secondary education.  In some cases, it was accomplished with the enthusiastic participation of the states, but, in other cases, it was done despite strong resistance from states that disagreed with both the premises and the policies.  Some parts of this agenda are supported by research.  There is no evidence at all, as I have pointed out in my previous blog, to support other key components of the design.  Some parts of this agenda have had, at least at some time, the enthusiastic backing of a significant—and bipartisan—majority of the members of Congress.  But, at the moment, as I also pointed out, very significant items are being added to this agenda in a process in which the Congress has played no part.

How can it be said, I wonder, that the United States has a constitution that assigns responsibility for policy on public education to the states, when, without deciding that such delegation was a bad idea, the nation one day decides that it is going to create a national system of academic standards, curriculum and testing, a national system for school accountability and a national system for assuring teacher quality, without ever saying that the states would no longer be responsible for such vital matters of education policy?  And how did it come to pass that we said that education policy was for the states to decide and in the very same breath say that the federal government would require the states to institute and expand a system of schools that would compete directly for students and funds with the regular public schools, whether the states wanted to do that or not?

The consequence of enabling the federal government to assume jurisdiction over such fundamental matters without ever deciding to withdraw the jurisdiction of the states on those matters is that both levels of government now have effective jurisdiction over most of the important issues relating to the design of the institutional structure of American elementary and secondary education.

This is no way to run a railroad.  It is absurd.  And it will, I strongly believe, prove dysfunctional.  No nation that has reached the top ranks of education performance has a system of governance that makes as little sense as our does now.  The process has gotten this far because, in a time of acute financial distress, the states will put up with almost anything to keep their budgets from completely disintegrating.  So the federal government, in this case meaning almost exclusively the executive branch of the federal government, has managed to get a phenomenal amount of leverage for the amount of money it has had to spend.

Is that how we want these decisions made?  Do we really want the executive branch of the federal government to decide, pretty much by itself, what the aims of American education should be and how they should be achieved?  Do we want the executive branch of the federal government to decide, pretty much by itself, what the new institutional structure of American education is going to be for decades to come?  Are we content to have the states and the federal government claim jurisdictions in education policy that overlap almost completely?

None of this is to suggest that there are obvious answers to the question as to how the American education system should be governed.  It is only to suggest that we ought to have a conversation about it before we wake up one day to find we have been overtaken by events.  That conversation ought to be framed by an assumption that we want a division of responsibility among the schools, districts, states and federal government that makes at least a modicum of sense, producing a set of roles for each level of government that are complementary and not in conflict, and which, taken together, reflect a national consensus on the right balance between national, state and local imperatives.

I was asked a while back by the Center for American Progress and the Fordham Institute to write a paper on education governance from a global perspective.  It will be released in the spring.  In that paper I will try to illuminate the options by describing and analyzing the way some of the top-performing countries in the world have chosen to organize their own governance systems for education.  There are surprises here.  And conundrums.  In the meantime, I urge you to think about the fact that our education system is being reshaped, before our eyes, in a very fundamental way, with hardly any debate.
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