Education Opinion

What Role Should the Feds Have in Public Education?

By Peter Greene — January 20, 2015 5 min read
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In the edubloggoverse, we’ve moved quickly from a consideration of a possible ESEA rewrite to the real issue that will lurk behind all the upcoming deliberations, negotiations, and arguments with your brother-in-law at family gatherings—just how much involvement should the federal government have in the world of public education?

This argument has percolated below the surface for quite a while now, but the ESEA and the U.S. Department of Education itself have turned the heat up by their very existence. Time to stake your position between one of two poles.

The Federal Government Should Maintain a Strong Presence in Regulating Public Education

This is the position advocated by Arne Duncan in his impassioned plea Monday to choose a new direction by staying the course (the Secretary of Education’s speech may have been a little muddled). It is also the position preferred by the ACLU, the NAACP, the Business Roundtable, and a whole lot of people who hope to make a bundle in the charter school biz.


Accountability. Standardization. A uniformity of schooling. A demand for transparency that will make it harder for states to hide their educational misbehavior. And taxpayers get to know how their money is spent. Well, the money that was borrowed in their name, anyway. National-scale resources can be brought to bear on the problems of education.


The concentration of power and control all in one place. There are huge problems with this. With diffuse and dispersed power, you have increased probability that somebody, somewhere is coming up with the right answer. Centralized power assumes that there is One Right Answer for everyone, and that the central office always knows what that answer is. This is unlikely in the best of circumstances. If you put the central office far away from actual schooling and deep in the heart of Politicsland, you make it likely that your Secretary of Education will know way more about power and politics than about education.

Centralized power also creates a one-stop shop for powermongering. If the centralized power controls access to a large, lucrative market, it invites people who want access to that market to do their best to insert themselves into the lawmaking process. How many well-paid lobbyists did Pearson et al keep in DC before there was a Department of Education?

Centralizing power also makes a statement about what you think the “center” actually is. Centralized control by the federal government builds in the assumption that DC is, in fact, the center, and that all those local school districts are just out there on the periphery somewhere, away from the Really Important Stuff. It also re-enforces the idea that people from The Center of Really Important Stuff are best suited to travel out to the distant outposts to bring people living there the school-leading wisdom that only DC has. This is patronizing, paternalistic poop. It first creates an un-meetable necessity that those from The Center must always be right, and quickly leads to an assumption (on their part) that since they are from The Center they must be correct.

The Congressional hearings kicking off today are an example of everything bad about a centralized approach. The hearing room is far, far away from any actual school or classroom, and the entire setting and approach favors people who know how to work the politics and optics of the situation. The hearings will generate lots of sound bites and debate fodder (already those of us in the edubloggoverse are sifting through the quotes and tweets to see what we can fall upon with kisses and/or knives), and Senators will say Very Dumb Things because they don’t know for sure what they’re talking about, but everyone’s paying attention, so they’d better say something.

Control of Education Should Rest With State and Local Authorities

This is the position favored by fans of traditional public education.


Local control is the best guarantee that schools meet the needs and goals of the communities they serve. Direct democracy is certainly more in keeping with our nation’s traditions. It acknowledges people in those communities are important, that the school and community are not outposts of the Center of All Things Important off in DC, and that those people know best how to manage the ins and outs and resources and needs and culture of their community. They are best positioned to decide what “success” should mean in their local schools.

If a local school district makes a bad policy choice, they’re only making it for community (not the entire country) and therefore bad policy decisions can be recognized and contained before they make a hash of every school in the country.


A crazy-quilt patchwork pattern of different educational programs across the country, making it impossible to accurately compare and rank different school districts and different educational programs. I’ll confess—that prospect doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I understand how reasonable people can think it would be a problem.

True local control would not help us fix the problems of equity. Without federal involvement, it’s far more likely that poor schools would suffer from a lack of resources, while wealthy schools flourished.

The Sticking Point Is Money

No matter how much local control fans want local control, they still need and want federal money, and federal money does not come string-free. “Have the taxpayers back a truck of money up to our door, drop it off, and never look back,” is not a reasonable expectation.

Meanwhile, folks who want the federal government to drive the national education policy bus have to bump up against their own unwanted consequence—if you want to drive the bus, you have to buy the gas.

In the ideal world of Federal Control fans, the feds hand down the rules on how education ought to work, but they never have to spend a penny of taxpayer money to make it happen. In the ideal world of Local Control fans, the feds dispense as much money as it takes to make things right, but they never say a word about what to do with it.

Neither of these ideal worlds will ever happen. There are big debates in education about how to separate standards from testing, but the big inseparable pair are the conjoined twins, money and control. Every debate about federal versus local control must ultimately come back to those twins.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.