As the U.S. Department of Education Turns 40, the Real Battleground for Kids Lies in the States

Oct 16, 2019 12:00:00 AM


This week marks the 40th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter signing the legislation that authorized him to create the U.S. Department of Education (ED). In light of this occasion, you might expect to hear a lot of conversation coming out of Washington D.C. about the leading role of the department in ensuring excellence in K-12 education in our nation. Instead, Jim Blew, the Department’s Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, spent time last week talking about how people would be “really disappointed” in how states are meeting the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In doing so, he implied that it is the states—not the federal government—that lead right now on education policy. And on the eve of ED’s 40th birthday, he couldn’t be more correct.

Over the past three years, it seems a great deal of the educational debate in our nation has been over what the department has done—or not done—under the leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVos. From the moment of her historic Senate confirmation hearing and vote, Secretary DeVos’ actions have captured the attention of the public, which has given the impression that the center of America’s educational policy processes is located in ED’s relatively non-descript headquarters, just blocks from Capitol Hill. 

This perception is grounded in some truth because important work certainly does take place at ED. I worked there for a year as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and, in that time, I saw a group of devoted public servants striving every day to improve our schools.

[pullquote]ED plays many important roles in our education policy, none more important than the role it should play in advancing educational equity in America.[/pullquote] As I heard so many times from former Secretary John King, at its core, ED’s mission—and the federal role in education—is rooted in the belief that education is a civil right for all students.

However, Secretary DeVos has made it clear from the start of her tenure that she views the states as the “best laboratories for democracies” for developing needed reforms for our public schools. This deference to the states has been augmented by the provisions of ESSA, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015. While the law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), created a heavy federal footprint in K-12 education, ESSA, in the words of President Barack Obama, focused on “empowering states” to develop their own strategies. 

As a result, in this moment, [pullquote]so many of the most pressing K-12 issues in our country can be most effectively influenced through state-focused advocacy.[/pullquote] For example, I firmly believe that nothing poses a more critical threat to the future health of our schools than a teaching shortage that is evolving into “a slow-motion strike (and) extended exodus.” Our society can continue to invest in all the technology or scripted curriculums we can find in an effort to help kids achieve, but the simple, hard truth is that none of these investments in tools have a chance of being effective without the presence of a quality teacher to put them to use. 

The exodus from the teaching profession also leads to ripple effects like larger class sizes and reduced student achievement resulting from teacher turnover. While it is true that federal programs like Title II can be used to help address some of the factors that are leading to the crisis in the teaching profession, it is ultimately the policies made at the state and local levels that can lead most directly to change.

On this issue, as with so many others, [pullquote position="right"]attention continues to be diverted to advocacy at the federal level when the real efforts should be localized.[/pullquote] Part of this is an inevitable result of the primacy of federal policies and actions in media coverage, but it is also, in no small part, a result of state and local policymakers being able to set up the federal government as the strawman for those that seek true educational reform. 

For example, I have often heard that it is the federal government’s fault that our children lose so much annual instructional time to take low-quality, high-stakes standardized tests. And, while it is true that ESSA does require states to measure student progress in certain grade levels, the law does not dictate the types of assessments states have to use. However, with a few notable exceptions, most states are showing little movement away from the same tests they used under NCLB.

As another example, in the era of Common Core, so many have been quick to point the finger at the federal government for concerns about the selection of standards and curriculum. However, under ESSA, the federal government is completely barred from directing or even trying to influence “specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments.” In this area, as in so many others, the responsibility for poor policies rests most directly with states and local school boards.

So, on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Department of Education, we should all take a moment to focus on the department’s founding mission to ensure access to “equal educational opportunity for every student.” And then, for those who are committed to that mission, they should take up the mantle of advocating for true educational equity at the state and local level, starting now and carrying into the ballot box in 2020.

Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics in Richland School District 2 in South Carolina, while also working as the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. He was a finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2014 and served as a teaching ambassador fellow for the U.S. Department of Education from 2015-2017. Patrick is a National Board Certified Teacher.

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