During the tenure of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the federal government has been called everything from a critical partner in school-improvement efforts to a meddlesome national school board. Local school districts, increasingly, find themselves on the receiving end either way.
A particularly aggressive U.S. Department of Education has used grant money and No Child Left Behind Act waivers to push an education agenda that favors charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, its own models for school turnarounds, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. And that’s not to mention the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day federal compliance issues districts face on topics such as special education and civil rights.
Like it or not, districts have the federal government as a not-so-distant partner—or adversary. Yet the federal government still provides less than 12 percent of overall K-12 funding, according to the latest analysis of federal data by the New America Foundation. What’s more, most of that money goes directly to states, which pass it along to districts.
But education experts question whether, in the long run, the fundamental operations of school districts will have changed as a result of the policy activism of President Barack Obama’s administration when it comes to policy. This comes even as critics of the Education Department, such as some members of Congress, argue that federal officials continue to pile on mandates and overreach into local K-12 decisionmaking.
“I don’t think they have fundamentally changed the way schools operate,” said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in Alexandria, Va. “Under the Obama administration, they had a lot of bells and whistles ... and they’ve tried on a lot of things. But there’s a difference between districts’ willingness to jump through hoops [to get optional grant money] and actual support of policies.”
Secretary Duncan, who has headed the department since 2009, came in with a roar, thanks in large part to the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress that year, yielding about $100 billion in education aid.
Mr. Duncan used a small pot of that American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to create the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which cajoled states into adopting the common core, lifting caps on charter school growth, and eliminating data firewalls between student and teacher information and test scores.
Meanwhile, Congress decided to pour new money into—and Mr. Duncan attached significant strings to—the existing School Improvement Grant formula program. Spending on the lowest-performing schools nearly quadrupled since President Obama took office and now exceeds $4 billion in total.
In an October 2013 survey, the Education Week Research Center asked a national sample of district administrators to describe the most significant challenges they and their school systems face as a result of federal and state education policies. An analysis of their answers reveals that many administrators (39 percent) felt particularly pressured by a lack of time and resources to enact policy mandates. A similar number cited testing and accountability pressures as a major challenge. One-third of respondents noted concerns about insufficient funding, while 22 percent cited loss of local decisionmaking authority
SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2014
Mr. Duncan prescribed four models, from closing the school to replacing half the staff, that districts had to choose from in order to get the money. Even though those models have proved very unpopular in many states and districts, a watered-down version is embedded in the pending Senate bill that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the most recent version.
“Elements of SIG will likely remain visible even after Obama leaves office,” Ms. Ellerson said.
More recently, Secretary Duncan has tried to influence state and district improvement efforts by using his authority under the ESEA to grant waivers to states from some of the most onerous provisions of the law. With that flexibility, however, has come more strings. States and districts must do everything from tie teacher evaluations to personnel decisions to devise interventions for schools with the largest achievement gaps.
Mr. Duncan surprised many education policy observers by granting that flexibility directly to eight districts in California after their state couldn’t secure state-level flexibility.
Such activism has elicited sharp criticism from members of Congress, in particular.
“Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former secretary of education, said in June as Congress was debating how to rewrite the federal school accountability law.
Around the Edges
But the Obama administration’s “reforms” have only nipped and tucked around the edges, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm, and the author of The Urban School System of the Future.
The department’s grants are still funneled through traditional means, to a state or to a district, he said. Federal officials “took for granted the system of governance we have. They’ve never used competitive-grant programs to bring about systemic reform.” For example, the department could have used a chunk of SIG money to fund charter schools in poor-performing districts, he said.
Overall, the federal government hasn’t had much interest—or success—in effecting major change in school districts, said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. That goes back to the creation of the federal education department as part of the 1965 ESEA.
“At that time, there was this huge restraint; they wanted nothing to do with school districts. The goal was to prop up state education agencies,” Mr. Manna said. “They said, ‘We don’t want 16,000 phone calls. We want 50 calls.' "
And now for the federal government, he said, “I think at the ground level, in districts, it’s really hard for the federal government to have much of an influence.”
There are two exceptions, however: civil rights and special education. Mr. Manna said the courts have never been good at forcing and implementing significant change in districts, whereas the federal education department has had a lot of success attaching conditions to federal funding to ensure equal access to education.
“The federal government has really focused on opportunity outcomes,” he said. “They are really good at making sure certain people get into the door.”