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Reading the Future of Education Policy

By Jeffrey R. Henig — January 07, 2013 6 min read
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Recent efforts to read the tea leaves for insights into education policy bring to mind a somewhat unsettling analogy to Sovietologists of the Cold War era. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, expert commentary focused on divining the inclinations of top leaders by poring over speeches and public documents, looking for nuance in inflection, finding clues in who said what to whom and where.

Today’s hyperfocus on President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a few key members of Congress similarly tries to distinguish feints from genuine commitments, hints from tactical spin.

And, with education having played a relatively minor role in the 2012 campaign, with Arne Duncan expected to continue as secretary (at least for now), and with federal budget battles, health care, and other national concerns likely to divert attention from education issues, it’s easy to see why most projections suggest—with a few minor changes in nuance and inflection—essentially more of the same.

But while changes in the White House will be subtle, the fundamental landscape of education politics has been shifting steadily beneath our feet. This has occurred along three major fault lines. Two of these are reasonably well recognized, although not yet fully mapped or understood. The third has implications that are just as great, but because it has been almost totally overlooked, I want to give it due attention here.

The first fault line involves centralizing shifts within the federal system that have increased the role of states and the national government relative to localities. The second involves shifts between the public and private sector, increasing the role of for-profit and nonprofit organizations not just in providing educational services, but also in acting as interest groups in the political arenas in which education policies are determined.

The third and least-recognized fault line involves the relative erosion of school-specific decisionmaking and the reabsorption of education policymaking into general-purpose politics and governance. I refer to this as “the end of exceptionalism” in American education. Normally, the concept of exceptionalism focuses on ways that institutions, norms, and political practices in the United States differ from those in other nations, usually delivered with the implications that the United States is better, favored by God or by fate. In referring to education exceptionalism, I’m focusing not on the differences between education here and in other countries, although differences, of course, exist. Rather, I’m highlighting differences within this country between the handling of education and the handling of other major domestic policies. Education is becoming more like other domestic-policy areas, and this has important implications about how the future politics of school reform is likely to unfold.

Education policy in the United States has traditionally been seen, and treated, as different and distinct—a thing apart. Traditionally, compared with decisions in most other important areas of domestic policy—the economy, welfare and income support, family policy, civil rights, and most questions relating to the environment, transportation, and crime—decisions about public schools have been highly localized and largely consigned to special single-purpose governance structures such as school boards and state boards of education. This is changing, in a slow but steady arc.

Education is becoming more like other domestic-policy areas, and this has important implications about how the future politics of school reform is likely to unfold.”

Mayoral control has been the most visible manifestation of the shift. Since 1992, when Boston switched from an elected school board to one appointed by the mayor, several other large cities have expanded the role of their mayors in running school systems. This includes some of the most high-profile sites for school reform, such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. (Other cities where formal mayoral control has been under discussion include Bridgeport, Conn.; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Newark, N.J.; Los Angeles; Rochester, N.Y.; Sacramento, Calif.; and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.) Mayoral control is supported by proponents of school choice, test-based accountability, and investment in education technologies, who see mayors as more receptive to these reforms than school boards with their historical allegiance to teachers’ unions and their investment in maintaining the status quo.

The growing role of general-purpose government and politics, however, extends beyond mayors to other elected executives, beyond the local level to states and the national government, and beyond chief executives to legislatures and the courts. So-called “education governors,” particularly Southern governors who saw improving schools as a key element in promoting economic development, began to assert a more muscular role in education policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Increased interest by governors has been accompanied by state constitutional and legislative changes that have increased their formal power over education policy.

The number of states in which the governor appoints the chief state school officer tripled between 1968 and 2005, and the number in which the governor appoints all members of the state board of education increased by more than one-third during the same period.

Presidents have dabbled in education off and on through the years, but the 1980s provided an inflection point. Ronald Reagan came into office pledging to shrink the national government’s involvement in education, but the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report commissioned by his secretary of education had the paradoxical effect of raising the pressure on presidents to take a leadership role. The three presidents who came after Reagan—George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—gave more than 2 ½ times the relative emphasis to education in their State of the Union addresses than did the seven who preceded them.

As executives delve into school issues, the legislatures they deal with also become increasingly engaged. While the attention to education by governors and presidents frequently spikes, my review of congressional and state legislative involvement suggests that lawmakers have been steadier and more hands-on in their role. And in a complicated way, the courts, as the least politically attuned branch of government, played a key role in opening the way for elected executives and legislatures to get more involved. It was the courts that tackled, and to some extent tamed, issues of racial and class equity that had made school politics a hot potato too volatile for risk-averse politicians to take on.

Is the end of exceptionalism something to celebrate or dread? On the negative side, as issue-specific arenas lose some of their monopoly over education decisionmaking, key decisions are being made by officials who have less detailed knowledge about education, less hard-wired commitment to education, and more pressure upon them to meet a host of other demands on the public purse.

But there are opportunities also. In particular, general-purpose politics, because it encourages multi-issue coalitions, might be more responsive to the need to take into account nonschool factors—concentrated poverty, public health, social services, and the like—as levers for improving educational attainment and reducing achievement gaps. And general-purpose governance institutions, because they encompass a broader range of agencies, might have the fiscal and administrative capacity to bring about a more comprehensive approach to education.

The institutional shifts will not on their own determine which policies will be pursued over the next four years. But they are altering the battleground on which competing visions of American education will be fought, both day to day and over the long term. For these reasons, this particular fault line—the end of education exceptionalism—has the potential to be more consequential than any recalibrations by the White House based on changing fiscal context, political strategy, or lessons learned.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Reading the Future of Education Policy

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