The latest National Summit on Education Reform is taking place at a time when the federal role in education is receding before the power of states.
And that’s just the way Jeb Bush, the founder of the organization that has hosted the summit for the past seven years, likes it.
“This new administration and this Congress have a real opportunity to bring wholesale disruption to education,” said Bush, the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, during a keynote address at the summit’s Thursday session.
“They can start by lifting the federal government’s heavy hand in setting education policy. The real place for change is in the states, and the real power should be with parents,” he said.
The foundation supports reform efforts such as A-F grades for public schools, school choice in the form of education savings accounts, charter schools, and vouchers for special education and low-income students, and requirements that 3rd graders show reading proficiency before being promoted.
The focus of the summit was in how states could leverage the Every Student Succeeds Act, which deliberately divests power from the federal government and returns it to the states. President-elect Donald Trump has also said that education is the role of the state.
Bush separated from the Foundation for Excellence in Education during his failed presidential bid, but returned to the organization earlier this year as its chairman. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was the foundation’s chairwoman during Bush’s absence, now has a seat on its board of directors.
Another member of the foundation’s board was Betsy DeVos, who stepped down when she was nominated as education secretary by President-elect Donald Trump.
“What a phenomenal, strong woman. And she will do an extraordinary job as secretary of education,” Bush told the crowd. (I did not spot DeVos among the 1,000 or so attendees.)
Summit Discussion Addresses State and Federal Roles in Education
The idea that the federal government does have a role to play in education, however, saw some support during the panel session that featured former education secretaries Bill Bennett, Arne Duncan, and Rod Paige as well as Roberto Rodriguez, a key White House aide on education for the Obama administration.
“I think we are all here because we feel a huge sense of urgency,” said Duncan, who after leaving the Obama administration is now a managing partner for a philanthropy called the Emerson Collective. The critique of the Obama administration was that it moved too fast, Duncan said. “I think my critique is that we went far too slow.”
Rodriguez said that the federal government has a role to play in ensuring equity for English-language learners, students with disabilities, and other students who have been at the margins of education discussions.
“I would hope we would not backslide into more ideologically driven discussions,” Rodriguez said.
But Paige said he was concerned about the gap between policymakers and practitioners.
“When schools change, that change will be in response to people in the schools,” Paige said.
And Bennett said—to applause—that the administration’s equity actions have led to an office for civil rights in the Education Department “that’s run amuck now.”
He continued: “The notion that the states are these irascible children, these juvenile delinquents that need to be brought to heel all the time is, I think, just wrongheaded.”