With 2017 upon us and a new administration in Washington prepared to take over, it’s a good time to reflect on the federal role in public education. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. Some liberals or progressives think the federal government should actively advocate for groups of kids who too often lose out: low-income, special education, minority, English-language learner, homeless, migrant and rural. They are lamenting the closing days of an administration that pushed hard on states to hold districts, schools and even teachers directly accountable for student outcomes. On the other hand, some liberals who are more in line with teachers unions have resisted accountability that is linked to standardized testing. They tend to agree with conservatives that the federal government should exercise minimal oversight and trust that states, districts, schools and educators will do the right thing for kids by setting a high bar, being transparent about results, and enabling local educators to innovate. These unlikely allies part ways, however, on the issue of choice. The new administration strongly supports public charters and public vouchers for students to attend private schools and wants to expand the federal role in promoting choice. Many conservatives, however, think there is no federal role in education and won’t even support a federal school choice program. They just want the department to go away and leave education entirely up to the states. So far, President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for secretary of education, philanthropist Betsy DeVos, have not said much about the federally-required, state-designed systems of accountability. Like many conservatives, she believes that giving parents the ability to vote with their feet and choose their child’s school is the best form of accountability and that government oversight, especially of charter schools, should be limited. If, however, DeVos is interested in winning over—or at least not alienating—the civil rights community and progressive education reformers, she will need to send two clear signals, starting with her upcoming Senate confirmation hearing.
1. Does DeVos Advocate for All Kids?
The first signal she must send is that she understands that her job is to advocate for all children, not just the 16 percent in private or public charter schools or who are home-schooled. The vast majority of children in America are educated in traditional public schools and she must devote a proportional amount of time and energy to them.
2. Does DeVos Appreciate the Federal Role?
The second signal she needs to send is that she understands the historic role the federal government has played in protecting students who need protection. America has a long and sorry history of under-serving children with special needs, as well as low-income, minority and other marginalized sub-groups of kids. Until the middle of the last century, many states legalized segregation and, despite the change in the law, segregation by race and income still exists in practice in the form of school boundaries. The system also discriminates against low-income kids with inequitable funding and low expectations, and over-disciplining of students of color. Congress, in its politically-driven wisdom, decided that the Obama administration over-reached with reform and reduced the federal role in the
updated federal education law. They also restricted the federal government’s ability to offer incentives in exchange for reform. Anti-accountability liberals supported the new version of the law, precisely because it removes any obligation to intervene in all but the very worst schools; and even with them, the law is sufficiently vague that there is little likelihood of meaningful interventions. History shows that, in most cases, administrators choose the least aggressive and least effective intervention. Today, in a school system that is increasingly Black, Brown, poor and non-English speaking, and where more than 1 in 7 students has some kind of disability, the need for accountability has never been greater, while the conditions for retreat have never been more likely. Under the new law, the U.S. Department of Education still has an explicit role in approving state accountability plans in exchange for receiving federal education funding. The plans are due in the coming months with approval expected prior to next fall’s school opening. First impressions matter. It will not take long to find out where Trump and DeVos stand on the issue of accountability. Let’s hope they stand with kids.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with