In the edubloggoverse, we've moved quickly from a consideration of a possible ESEA rewrite to the real issue that will lurk behind all the upcoming deliberations, negotiations, and arguments with your brother-in-law at family gatherings—just how much involvement should the federal government have in the world of public education?
argument has percolated below the surface for quite a while now, but
the ESEA and the U.S. Department of Education itself have turned the
heat up by their very existence. Time to stake your position between one
of two poles.
The Federal Government Should Maintain a Strong Presence in Regulating Public Education
is the position advocated by Arne Duncan in his impassioned plea Monday
to choose a new direction by staying the course (the Secretary of
Education's speech may have been a little muddled). It is also the
position preferred by the ACLU, the NAACP, the Business Roundtable, and a
whole lot of people who hope to make a bundle in the charter school
A uniformity of schooling. A demand for transparency that will make it
harder for states to hide their educational misbehavior. And taxpayers
get to know how their money is spent. Well, the money that was borrowed
in their name, anyway. National-scale resources can be brought to bear
on the problems of education.
concentration of power and control all in one place. There are huge
problems with this. With diffuse and dispersed power, you have increased
probability that somebody, somewhere is coming up with the right
answer. Centralized power assumes that there is One Right Answer for
everyone, and that the central office always knows what that answer is.
This is unlikely in the best of circumstances. If you put the central
office far away from actual schooling and deep in the heart of
Politicsland, you make it likely that your Secretary of Education will
know way more about power and politics than about education.
power also creates a one-stop shop for powermongering. If the
centralized power controls access to a large, lucrative market, it
invites people who want access to that market to do their best to insert
themselves into the lawmaking process. How many well-paid lobbyists did
Pearson et al keep in DC before there was a Department of Education?
power also makes a statement about what you think the "center" actually
is. Centralized control by the federal government builds in the
assumption that DC is, in fact, the center, and that all those local
school districts are just out there on the periphery somewhere, away
from the Really Important Stuff. It also re-enforces the idea that
people from The Center of Really Important Stuff are best suited to
travel out to the distant outposts to bring people living there the
school-leading wisdom that only DC has. This is patronizing,
paternalistic poop. It first creates an un-meetable necessity that those
from The Center must always be right, and quickly leads to an
assumption (on their part) that since they are from The Center they must
The Congressional hearings kicking off today are an
example of everything bad about a centralized approach. The hearing room
is far, far away from any actual school or classroom, and the entire
setting and approach favors people who know how to work the politics and
optics of the situation. The hearings will generate lots of sound bites
and debate fodder (already those of us in the edubloggoverse are
sifting through the quotes and tweets to see what we can fall upon with
kisses and/or knives), and Senators will say Very Dumb Things because
they don't know for sure what they're talking about, but everyone's
paying attention, so they'd better say something.
Control of Education Should Rest With State and Local Authorities
This is the position favored by fans of traditional public education.
control is the best guarantee that schools meet the needs and goals of
the communities they serve. Direct democracy is certainly more in
keeping with our nation's traditions. It acknowledges people in those
communities are important, that the school and community are not
outposts of the Center of All Things Important off in DC, and that those
people know best how to manage the ins and outs and resources and needs
and culture of their community. They are best positioned to decide what
"success" should mean in their local schools.
If a local school
district makes a bad policy choice, they're only making it for community
(not the entire country) and therefore bad policy decisions can be
recognized and contained before they make a hash of every school in the
A crazy-quilt patchwork
pattern of different educational programs across the country, making it
impossible to accurately compare and rank different school districts and
different educational programs. I'll confess—that prospect
doesn't bother me in the slightest, but I understand how reasonable
people can think it would be a problem.
True local control would
not help us fix the problems of equity. Without federal involvement,
it's far more likely that poor schools would suffer from a lack of
resources, while wealthy schools flourished.
The Sticking Point Is Money
matter how much local control fans want local control, they still need
and want federal money, and federal money does not come string-free.
"Have the taxpayers back a truck of money up to our door, drop it off,
and never look back," is not a reasonable expectation.
folks who want the federal government to drive the national education
policy bus have to bump up against their own unwanted
consequence—if you want to drive the bus, you have to buy the
In the ideal world of Federal Control fans, the feds hand
down the rules on how education ought to work, but they never have to
spend a penny of taxpayer money to make it happen. In the ideal world of
Local Control fans, the feds dispense as much money as it takes to make
things right, but they never say a word about what to do with it.
of these ideal worlds will ever happen. There are big debates in
education about how to separate standards from testing, but the big
inseparable pair are the conjoined twins, money and control. Every
debate about federal versus local control must ultimately come back to
Originally published at View from the Cheap Seats