Expand the Federal Role in Education

Expand the Federal Role in Education
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President Barack Obama meets with the Council of the Great City Schools Leadership, Monday, March 16, 2015, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the president, Cecilia Munoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Budget Director Shaun Donovan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

RCEd Commentary

The debate in Washington around reauthorizing No Child Left Behind is driven mostly by falsehoods and fear, rather than values and vision. Worse yet, the broken politics in the nation’s capital limits the conversation to what’s politically possible rather than what’s educationally needed.

We need to revisit our core values and ask: Does America truly cares about equity and integration? Do we care about rigor and high standards? Do we care about restoring the middle-class American Dream for more people and reversing income inequality? Do we really want opportunity for everyone or just for some?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then we need a wholly different conversation in Washington based on a 21st Century vision of schools. In this vision, needed resources are provided not just in some schools but in all schools. The profession of teaching is revered, empowered and appropriately compensated. 

Instead of a tiresome debate around accountability, we agree on simple measures of progress and shared responsibility among teachers, principals, superintendents and taxpayers.

The only way to achieve this vision in a decentralized system like ours is with a much bigger federal investment. Today, 1-2 percent of the federal budget goes to K-12 education, while 16-20 percent goes to defense, when you include the wars. But education is the real defense industry of the 21st Century so let’s talk about shifting a few percentage points from unwinnable wars and unneeded weapons programs toward public education.

Conservatives will insist we also talk about entitlement reforms that could shift dollars from the elderly to the young. We should all welcome that conversation, including those of us who no longer have kids in school and are busy tracking our retirement portfolios. Our collective interest trumps our self-interest.

A bigger federal investment would allow states and districts to reduce local and state taxes and achieve greater funding equity between rich and poor districts.  Boosting the federal share of education funding reduces state and local political pressures on annual school budgets and provides more certainty for administrators.

Affluent communities always have the option of over-taxing themselves for schools, but at least poor communities will reach a higher funding threshold. This was always the intent of the federal law but loopholes have undermined the goal.

It’s time for people on all sides of the debate to admit that if not for the federal government, most of America’s schools would still be in the 1950s in terms of quality, equity and diversity. Sadly, school systems are reverting to this era because of increasing economic inequity and self-segregation shaped by housing patterns and school boundaries. Only the federal government can stave it off.

Leaving accountability solely to the states is a complete surrender to the status quo.  State and local elected officials won’t adequately fund a system of accountability, administrators won’t faithfully implement it, and teacher unions will relentlessly resist it. Pretending otherwise ignores both history and human nature.

Before conservatives squawk, let’s agree that an expanded federal investment does not necessarily mean more federal oversight. We can rewrite the law so states design their own accountability systems -- essentially a more flexible version of this administration’s waiver policy-- but the buck must still stop with the feds.

Most high-performing country have a strong centralized education system with high standards, rigorous teacher preparation programs and proportionately greater investment in children at risk.

America, however, spends less on poor students than on wealthy ones. We leave many critical educational decisions to 14,000 local school boards, some of which show greater allegiance to discrediting science or whitewashing history than to improving education.

America leaves the preparation of teachers to 1,400 schools of education with little incentive to raise the bar for admission or improve the effectiveness of their teachers. America allows unions that exist to protect teacher rights and benefits to define work rules, length of the school day and measures of academic success, de-professionalizing a field that is desperately in need of more talent and respect.

Liberals need to stop complaining about the current system of accountability without offering a practical, responsible alternative. Educators ignore at their own peril the benefits of objective, verifiable proof of success. They should put blame for over-testing squarely where it belongs: on local actors trying to shirk responsibility and evade consequences for their inability to educate children at risk.

Conservatives need to stop grousing about federal overreach and acknowledge the real and measurable improvements driven in part by federal accountability: rising test scores, especially among minorities and younger students; record high school graduation and college enrollment rates; more innovation and choice in communities where it is wanted and needed; higher standards in many states.

Washington should stop playing to the extremes and instead honor our core values of fairness and equality, and America’s unique identity as the first and best place in the world where people of all ethnic, religious and social backgrounds can live, work and thrive together. If high-quality public education isn’t a national priority, what is?

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