Before there was a U.S. Constitution and a federal government, a national government, in the form of the Confederation Congress, passed legislation known as the Land Ordinance of 1784. Its purpose was to facilitate the development of the Northwest Territories, and it also referenced the promotion of education by the new territories. Earlier, Founders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson also had sought to incorporate language advancing education into their state constitutions. Adams was able, in Massachusetts, to write in articles related to the provision of basic education. Jefferson’s Plan for the General Diffusion of Knowledge, while not adopted in full in Virginia, has become one of his enduring legacies.
Over the next 100 years, states developed public education systems, some of which became the envy of the world. Their accomplishments for the nation are legendary: rising literacy rates, the assimilation of millions of immigrants, a standard of living never seen before in the history of humanity. The idea of a federal system of education had no traction. It just did not fit within our system of governance. War, interstate commerce, and foreign diplomacy were federal responsibilities. States focused on law enforcement and on infrastructure, including schools and colleges. To this day, the U.S. Constitution does not mention education.
We now find ourselves at a critical juncture. Remarkably, state after state is handing over its education policy apparatus to the federal government, in exchange for what amounts to small change. Estimates of combined national spending for prekindergarten through high school hover around $650 billion, of which about 10 percent comes from the federal government. Despite this lopsided funding arrangement, federal policy now reaches into every school district and classroom in the country. States routinely submit plans to the federal government about who will teach in their schools and when children will be tested. Teachers are fired and schools closed based on policy procedures set in motion in Washington.
Local school boards and state boards of education have become irrelevant policy sinecures. In the latest policy capitulation, state legislatures are crafting and revising numerous statutes to conform to the current federal administration’s vision of pre-K-12 education policy. As a former chief state school officer, I find it hard to watch governors and state legislators admit that they are bankrupt of ideas about what needs to be done, as they look to Washington for education policies for their states.
This is not a call for states’ rights or an essay in praise of local control. Instead, it is a call for state responsibility and a demand for local reliability, for today’s federal entanglements have resulted from the abandonment of both. The debacles we see in so many of our urban districts and the diminished education in so many rural schools are the result of policies by governors, state legislatures, state boards of education, chief state school officers, mayors, and school boards. There is plenty of blame to go around.
There is no unique genius regarding education policy that springs from within the Capital Beltway. The acquiescence to federal education policy is rooted in the unwillingness of state and local policy leaders to defeat the parochialism within their own systems. It is much easier for these officials to justify changes to the education system when they can “blame it on the feds.” The ideal of the common school came to fruition because of state and local leadership. It was a long and difficult struggle, but it was the states that overcame hidebound narrow-mindedness and ultimately built the education systems. States need to reassert their authority to rebuild those systems.
State after state is handing over its education policy apparatus to the federal government, in exchange for what amounts to small change."
The polemics of Washington make it an especially bad place to undertake education policy work. The initiatives of the past three presidential administrations underscore this point. America 2000 became Goals 2000, which became No Child Left Behind, which will become something else by which a president can be identified. Along the way, states will shift with the political winds blowing from the nation’s capital. States and districts are hardly immune to fad-chasing, but they tend to set longer-range policies in motion, such as education funding formulas, teacher-licensure rules, or courses of study. They are less prone to tampering with the system, since they must live with and pay for the consequences. Federal administrations live with a much shorter time horizon.
Here is a proposal for a reformed federal policy direction that better aligns with our national form of governance. The proposal recognizes that federal money and muscle have driven the federal policy takeover, yet both should continue to play a role under this reform arrangement.
First, reorient federal financial assistance by allowing states to opt in to a new arrangement. This proposal calls for states to receive the same overall level of federal aid, but for the money to be directed to cover other underfunded federal mandates, such as Medicaid or highway construction. In this scenario, a state would be required to swap redirected federal dollars, formerly for preschool through 12th grade, with state resources. The net result would be the same overall level of funding for pre-K-12 at no additional cost to the state. In exchange, the state would get out from under the myriad federal education rules associated with the array of federal education programs.
Second, dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and do away with the post of U.S. secretary of education. Return their status to a federal office of education and its commissioner, respectively. At the same time, however, the federal government should redouble its efforts to guarantee the constitutional rights of all students by substantially beefing up the office for civil rights and the U.S. Department of Justice. Because history has taught us that parochialism in states and school districts is often a roadblock, federal money and muscle are needed to guarantee an equal educational opportunity for every student.
Third, continue the federal mission of collecting data about the condition of education in America. The national government should promote research and innovation, but not return to programmatic education areas.
Advocates for a national curriculum and assessment system see a centralized policy direction as the solution to what is wrong with American education. They point to other developed countries that score higher than the United States on international assessments and have centralized systems. But that is misguided and naive, because we know that those countries also have many other policy structures in place, such as social systems that support children and families in ways that help make a difference on international tests.
Our children won’t read better because Congress serves as the national school board. Nor will they learn more mathematics with the president as the national superintendent of schools. We risk making things worse across the country by giving up more policy control for education to the federal government. By centralizing our system of education, we put the whole nation at risk, should Beltway bureaucrats and policy pundits guess wrong about curriculum, instruction, and the range of policy decisions associated with public education. Maintaining a system that is decentralized affords opportunities for success in many places.
It is time to reform federal education policy.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as It’s Time to Reform Federal Education Policy