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The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

Published:  July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

 

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