States’ rights: a slippery slope back to mediocrity?
In the midst of the waiver news last week—which set many a reformer’s teeth on edge—came a few events and reports that provide some interesting ringtones for the current debate over the federal role in education.
Let the dollars follow the child was the proposal from the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force, which also makes a compelling case for the federal government’s “central role” in our nation’s education future. Let the feds butt out was the message delivered by Rep. John Kline, Republican chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, as he explained two ESEA rewrite bills at an American Enterprise event. And Unconstitional! was the Pioneer Institute’s conclusion about the federal government’s support of the Common Core:
Actions taken by the Obama Administration signal an important policy shift in the nation’s education policy, with the Department placing the nation on the road to federal direction over elementary and secondary school curriculum and instruction.
One wonders whether “states’ rights” are being invoked to cover up the very inequities that NCLB was determined to remedy.
I hesitate to invoke Civil War analogies here, but there are some troubling signs in the current dust-up that make one wonder whether “states’ rights” are being invoked to cover up the very inequities—the “soft bigotry of low expectations”—that No Child Left Behind was determined to remedy. In a press release from the Education Committee’s Republicans we learn that they “have long recognized the progress state and local officials have had implementing innovative reforms that hold schools accountable for student achievement, support excellent teachers, and provide greater choices for parents.”
Mike also engaged the question in his ‘whither education’ post last Friday:
We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and mis-shaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local district, and the individual school building itself.
Too many cooks in the classroom, says Mike.
Rep. Kline’s two bills—the Student Success Act and Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act—seem designed to kick the feds out of the classroom. In a summary of the Student Success Act, for instance, the House Republicans highlight the fact that the bill
- Eliminates AYP and replaces it with state-determined accountability systems, thereby returning authority for measuring student performance to states and school districts.
- Eliminates federally mandated actions and interventions currently required of poor performing schools, giving states and districts maximum flexibility to develop appropriate school improvement strategies and rewards for their schools.
- Repeals federal “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirements.
But it is unclear how the two bills will actually encourage education excellence or accountability. There will be plenty more on these bills (and I recommend watching the AEI event and looking at a bill summary and fact sheet), but the Koret report seems to strike a more sensible balance here by defining governance roles. As explained by Task Force member Grover Whitehurst in his Education Next summary, the Hoover report would agree with Kline that the federal government’s involvement in K-12 education has grown, with “only modest impact on student achievement.” But rather than concluding, as Kline does, that this means that the feds should abandon oversight, Koret believes that the feds retaining “rigorous accountability is preferable to returning control of public schooling to local public-school monopolies and states, which will fall into old habits all too quickly.”
This is a huge difference of approach, one that recognizes the federal duty to guarantee individual rights, including educational rights. The feds have “a legitimate role,” Whitehurst argues. And this report identifies four federal education functions:
- Creating and disseminating information on school performance in each classroom and program effectiveness, including information on individual student performance;
- Enforcing civil rights laws;
- Providing financial support to high-need students;
- Enhancing competition among providers.
The genius of Koret is its faith in federalism, which, when properly understood, has achieved much. When we understand that part of the federal role is to encourage competition, we can more properly steer our governance systems to align with roles envisioned by the Founders.
Whitehurst argues that “government services are most efficiently delivered if provided closest to the taxpayers or consumers receiving them,” but only if the competition is truly free. For the past 15 years, he explains the feds have “intervene[d] from above” in order to “correct the strong tendency of local school bureaucracies to cater more to adult than student interests.”
Koret, says Whitehurst, suggests that there is a more efficient way of correcting these local oppressions: by letting federal education dollars follow the student. The formula would be “weighted to compensate for the extra costs associated with high-need students” so that parents would have “real choice.” In other words, you not only limit the federal role, you cut out the middle men—the state, local, and school board bureaucrats. It would surely satisfy Mike’s problem of too many cooks in the education kitchen.
“Parents must have the widest possible choice of schools for their children and be armed with good information on the performance of schools,” says Whitehurst.
Does this sound overreaching? Unconstitutional? Impractical? If anything, it sounds too good to be true. But so was America when first conceived.
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About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
May 23, 2013
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