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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

ESEA Cabin Fever: The Proper Federal Role in Education

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 19, 2015 6 min read
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“Cabin Fever” is a virtual conversation between two friends who come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a belief in the power of public education to improve lives and brighten our collective future. The focus of the conversation is the federal K-12 education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), which is in progress in Congress. Our initial post on February 4 reflected areas of agreement around annual testing and transparency. Additional posts focus on areas of disagreement and will run simultaneously through February 19 every other day on Rick’s blog at Education Week and on Education Post.

What is your vision of an appropriate and constructive federal role in K-12 education?

Peter Cunningham Responds

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

For the past two weeks, Rick Hess and I have essentially debated one question: do we need a strong or weak federal government overseeing public education?

My view is clear: the core federal role is to protect kids. Returning oversight to the states will put millions of at-risk kids at even greater risk. The notion that getting the feds out of the way will suddenly trigger a renaissance of innovation, accountability, and equity is a fairy tale.

What will happen is what has happened. Some states, districts and schools will do great things, but many won’t. The losers will continue to be low-income kids, kids of color, rural students, and students with disabilities. The losers will be all of us who are saddled with the economic and social costs of a large and unsustainable underclass.

We know a few things:

  • Education funding remains criminally unequal due to our over-reliance on local taxes. Most states are simply not meeting their responsibilities.
  • Low-income children, who now make up half of the student population for the first time in history, need more resources than upper-income children. In our system, they get less. Support should start at birth and continue beyond college.
  • Strengthening and elevating teaching is the absolute, essential challenge, and it requires a full-scale, top-to-bottom transformation of the profession, from training to advancement to compensation. The barriers are formidable, from change-resistant schools of education to constrictive labor agreements to risk-averse school boards and administrators. On its own, it will not happen.
  • Choice is an effective but limited strategy. Charters and vouchers will never serve all kids. We must also get better at improving traditional schools.
  • Racial and economic segregation in schools is more prevalent today than 50 years ago, driven by housing patterns, demographics and social inequity. Unaddressed, this will tear apart the fabric of American society.

None of these challenges will be met if states and districts are simply freed from accountability and oversight. In fact, the current era of federal oversight coincides with the highest test scores and graduation rates in history.

And it is absolutely false to say that our educational shortcomings are caused or exacerbated by federal oversight. They are a function of self-interest.

Why should upper-income taxpayers pay more to educate lower-income children? Why should economically and racially segregated communities actively integrate their schools? Why should the teacher pipeline reform a system that allows everyone to prosper? Why should a parent worry about other people’s kids?

These are perfectly rational questions. My answer to all of them is the same: we are one country and we rise or fall together.

Improving education is a national imperative that demands a robust federal role in order to nudge, prod, or force states and districts to do the hard but necessary things that will help them get better. Allowing political interests to override our national interest is unforgivable.

Rick Hess Responds

Today, Peter and I discuss the federal role in schooling. We agree, as he puts it, that “improving education is a national imperative"—our disagreement is how best to make that happen. Peter sees our exchange as focused on the question of whether we desire a “strong” or a “weak” federal role in education. I’d put it differently.

I’d say that our discussion has been about what Washington can do usefully and well within our federal system. The question is when federal activity will help schools, given all of their complexity, layers of governance, and dependence on personal relationships and local cultures, and when it’s more likely to fuel rigidity, bad decisions, and counterproductive compliance.

In our system of government, Washington doesn’t run schools. All it does is write rules for schools. Congress can do little more than enact laws that tell federal bureaucrats to write rules for states, which write rules for school districts, which then give directions to schools. Washington can therefore force states and districts to do things, but it cannot make them do those things well. And when it comes to complex enterprises like public schooling, whether things like teacher evaluation and school “turnarounds” are done matters far less than how they are done.

Thus, No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and its ESEA waiver program have yielded a series of Pyrrhic victories. Federal officials have championed not-ready-for-prime-time measures that frequently had only scant in-state support, rushed them into place, and then wound up frustrated and befuddled by the backlash against the Common Core or testing.

Washington should focus on those tasks for which it is uniquely suited and that suit its role given the basic tenets of federalism. Namely, the federal government should:

  • Ensure the availability of accurate, comparable measures and information needed to help empower parents, educators, voters, and local officials. This means requiring states to regularly test, disaggregate, and report the results, and also doing more to expect states to report school and district data, including financial data.
  • Support the kind of basic research necessary for dynamic improvement. This kind of basic research is a class public good (because its benefits are broadly dispersed) and will tend to be shortchanged if left to private providers or the states.
  • Play an active role in “trust-busting” and bureaucracy-taming—freeing up educators and enabling promising new providers to get a fair shot.
  • Fully embrace the bankruptcy authority constitutionally entrusted to Congress, and offer those state and local officials who wish to do so a systematic process for seeking relief from the burdens of their predecessors’ bad decisions.

Beyond this, well-intentioned federal efforts can all too easily create more problems than they solve. They yield fear-inducing rules and audits, fuel paper-pushing and intrusive reporting requirements, and force local educators to defer to the timetables and judgments of Beltway bureaucrats. Washington has a role to play, but let’s remember that there’s a reason why the phrase “I’m from Washington and I’m here to help” is so often treated as a punchline.

Other Posts in This Series

Wednesday, February 4 - Issue #1: Testing and transparency

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement

Wednesday, February 11 - Issue #4: Title I portability

Friday, February 13 - Issue #5: What the federal government should require when it comes to teacher evaluation

Tuesday, February 17 - Issue #6: Federal support for innovation

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.