Monday, November 8, 2010

After the Dust Clears

After the election of 2008, I thought the stars were aligning for some serious changes in the way the federal government treated public schools.

Gone were the architects of No Child Left Behind. A president who had repeatedly said we should not judge schools or children on the basis of one test was elected to office. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was up for reauthorization, and I was hopeful things would change.

I did not mind waiting while other issues took stage, because I liked most of what was going on. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, health-care reform, getting higher education student loans out of the hands of the banks, a recovery act, and much more. Schools were provided a generous slice of the recovery dollars – not just once, but twice-- and that money kept the budget ax from falling on my school.

But reauthorization of ESEA languished, and the initiatives from the U.S. Department of Education including more money for charters, turnaround plans that seemed to focus more on punishing than supporting teachers, support for short-term teacher training, all echoed the plans of prior administrations. Now that the reins of legislative power have again changed hands, what should we expect this time?

I am not sure. I worry that despite election-year rhetoric about the intrusion of the federal government into local school decision-making, the new bosses in Washington may be the same as the old boss (with apologies to The Who). But I have an idea as to a bi-partisan effort that might make everyone happy: eliminate the Department of Education.

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complians they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that Department of Education was a pay-off by Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That's where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of a national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. Remember, the feds only provide about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live. But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it. In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

It might be viewed as peculiar for someone who values education to be arguing for what has often been a very conservative position. I know I will hear responses that education is a national issue and is too important to be left to states and locales. But this has always been the argument of the “I know better than you” crowd, and it's time we stop buying into that logic. The fact is, the federal government has demonstrated time and time again it does not know better when it comes to our schools.

I would also suggest that this smaller bureaucracy have a more limited role than in the past. Instead of trying to tell our schools what to do, the feds should play a more circumspect role. That role would include insuring all children have equal access to school programs, providing and disseminating high-quality research on successful schools and programs and funneling federal dollars to schools facing the most challenging conditions (the original intent of ESEA).

Of course it's probably na├»ve to even suggest a bureaucracy as large as DOE go away – it's hard to name any such organization that we have eliminated. But why not try out an idea that appeals to our current climate of more democratic localism, less federal intrusion, and more effective use of federal dollars? It could end up being a case of addition by subtraction.

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