Like the frog being cooked in a pot of boiling water, state and local officials have watched without apparent apprehension as the federal government has become an ever-greater influence on education in this nation.
With few exceptions, federal K-12 education policy, as we know it today, emerged just over 50 years ago in the wake of fears that the Soviet Union was racing ahead of us in space. Those fears prompted the enactment of the National Defense Education Act. That in turn was followed by the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, inspired by the War on Poverty.
Since passage of those earlier federal laws, a steady stream of new legislation has been enacted, ranging from the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 1975 to the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002.
Unfortunately, during this half-century we have never had a national conversation about what level of government—federal, state, or local—should have accountability and authority for improving outcomes for children. With a few exceptions, the federal government has appropriately filled a true policy-need vacuum, such as when federal officials intervened to address the lack of services for children with disabilities. In other instances, special interests have dominated, and small, inadequately funded programs, such as metric education, have been enacted and then usually abandoned after a few years when the sponsors left Congress.
In every case where major breakthrough legislation has passed, it was enacted as a civil rights measure, a national-defense necessity, or in response to what was viewed as another major national concern, such as economic competitiveness. Never were any of these laws, all based on the best of intentions, passed strictly on their educational merits, and not once was there a discussion regarding the appropriate roles for states, for districts, and for the federal government. Typically, discussions about improving the quality of schools take place as though schools existed in isolation, not as a part of complex state education systems.
To make [the meeting] truly bipartisan, the national co-chairs could be all of our living former presidents.
It is now clear that a reauthorization of the primary federal K-12 education legislation—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind—will not take place in 2010, as many had hoped. When the ESEA is reauthorized, even greater confusion about the proper role of local, state, and federal agencies will likely be created. Just recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan voiced and later recanted a claim that the federal government would assure that private schools were held accountable, a thought breathtaking in the leap it makes from the reality of state regulation.
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened a White House Conference on Education to discuss what he termed “significant and pressing problems in the field of education.” The meeting explored a range of questions, including: What should our schools accomplish? In what ways can we organize our school systems more effectively and efficiently? How can we get enough good teachers and keep them? How can we finance our schools? How can we obtain a continuing public interest in education? Regrettably, most of those topics are as relevant today as they were 55 years ago.
In anticipation of the ESEA reauthorization, and in the belief that the complexity of the world today calls out for a new examination of the issues, it seems like the right time to convene a new White House Conference on Education, preceded by similarly focused meetings in each of the states and then followed by governors’ summits in each state to address recommendations from the national meeting. To make the White House conference truly bipartisan, the national co-chairs could be all of our living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—each of whom has played a major role in education reform.
While some of today’s issues are new, others carry over from the real-life “Mad Men” era. We still need to consider, for instance, what policy roles would be best played by the various levels of government, even as we grapple with defining education in a digital age. And we need to ask what must be done to close the achievement gap throughout K-12 education, as well as to improve high school graduation rates.
Equally important as the issues themselves is providing a venue in which these matters can be discussed, where consensus might be achieved, and where a clear national blueprint for the future can be agreed upon. While many feel that the 10th Amendment explicitly leaves responsibility for education to the states, there is unquestionably a federal role, especially in a nation and world where economies are no longer defined by state or national borders.
White House conferences can be nothing more than elaborate photo opportunities. But what I propose here should ensure that there is real substance, particularly since the White House event would be book-ended by meetings in every state. If we continue to forge ahead without a framework to guide our actions, we are likely to see even greater confusion and uncertainty in the future as we tackle the education agenda.
If we fail to have this sort of national dialogue—with all views and perspectives heard—we will continue to expend time and effort on debating issues that are mostly about adult power and too seldom about children’s learning.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as It’s Time for a White House Conference on Education