Accountability Opinion

The Death of Federalism?

By Diane Ravitch — January 25, 2011 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I have received many informative letters this past year from teachers, principals, parents, and others, who tell me what is happening on the ground. One of the most informative arrived a few days ago. I must keep the letter-writer’s identity hidden, for reasons that will be obvious.

A superintendent in a small district in the Midwest wrote to tell me that his district wants to adopt higher standards than the ones prescribed in federal law (which rely on the state tests). His district would like to use the ACT for its standards, because its tests are content-based, not skills-based.

But the district needs a federal waiver to switch to higher standards. The superintendent has received the written support of the local school board, the state school board, the state commissioner of education, and the local congressman. He has written to the U.S. Department of Education seeking a waiver from the federal requirements, but has waited for several months with no answer.

He wrote me, thinking I might have some way to help. Of course I don’t, not having any access to the seat of power these days.

How did it happen that a district must obtain the approval of the U.S. secretary of education for what is surely a local and state matter? When did Congress decide to abandon federalism? When did the U.S. Department of Education take control of decisions that rightly belong to state and local authorities?

I worked in the department long ago and respect the professionalism of the career civil servants there. But the U.S. Department of Education has no greater expertise—and very likely less—than state and local departments of education. Its employees are not school reformers, but administrators of grants and contracts, enforcers of compliance with laws and regulations, and the executors of similar functions. And Congress has far less expertise about school reform than any of the 100,000 schools for which it is now making rules and regulations.

So long as educational decisions continue to be made not by seasoned educators (who engage with parents about the well-being of their children) but by politicians, bureaucrats, think tanks, businesspeople, foundation functionaries, and pundits—few of whom have been in a school since they got their diploma—our nation’s education system will be in deep trouble.


P.S. I think that last sentence was the longest I have ever written. But it says what I want to say.

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