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GRAVES: No more federal control — or funds

Joe Graves, Mitchell Superintendent  Among my several non-career interests is that of urban legends — those little stories and rules of thumb that people generally believe but which have little or no actual basis in reality. One of those that I never fail to be amazed by — especially by the number of people who buy into it — is the “rule of three.” One famous celebrity dies and someone in the office will wonder aloud, “I wonder who the other two will be?”

This sort of thinking is self-affirming since eventually two more will come along, mortality being what it is, thereby providing the person with evidence supporting this notion.

And though I don’t believe in a rule of three, I did notice, nevertheless, three recent articles written independently, i.e., without regard to one another, but all tying into a similar reality — the federal role in education.

The first came from the American School Board Journal’s November/December issue in an article titled, “Federal expansion vs. local governance.” The article, not surprisingly, lamented the increasingly invasive stance of the federal Department of Education into the business of local school boards and districts. Michael Resnick, the article’s author, states “This expanded federal action increasingly has eroded school board decision-making and flexibility.” To which this member of the choir offers a hearty, “Amen.” Yet, oddly, Resnick does not offer the obvious solution (well, obvious to me, anyway) to this problem, the cessation of any federal role in education, as made abundantly clear in the United States Constitution. Instead, he simply wants the federal DOE to have no regulatory control of schools absent actual federal legislation.

While this would certainly be an improvement and at least push back the federal bureaucratic permeation into local schools, it hides Resnick’s real point, which can be put quite simply: the federal government should continue to write schools large checks, but then mind its own business. Unfortunately, the idea that federal largesse can come without federal control is a pipe dream worthy not even of Hamlin. It is a utopia which never has and never will exist. If you don’t want federal control, you must forego federal funds.

That a cessation of federal funds wouldn’t in all cases be a bad thing was clarified on Nov. 21 by Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post, a site generally favorably inclined toward the current administration and so not likely to offer stinging criticism. Yet the criticism offered on one aspect of federal education policy is withering. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the DOE began issuing billions of dollars’ worth of School Improvement Grants aimed at turning around the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in America. You already know the results. Some of these schools saw tiny improvements in student achievement. Most saw no change at all. Approximately one-third saw scores fall. If the answer is more federal aid, I can only wonder at just what the question could have been. How can we simultaneously exacerbate the federal debt, leave student achievement essentially unchanged or worse, and destroy the American tradition of local control of education all in one fell swoop? Done.

The third person to weigh in on the federal education policy phenomenon was Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under President George W. Bush. In an open letter widely published in newspaper editorial sections, Spellings commented that recent PISA (international student achievement comparisons) scores had failed to keep track with other countries whose improvements were leaving American students in the dust while pointing out that when accountability measures were levied on schools under No Child Left Behind before its enforcement mechanisms were largely waived by the subsequent administration, American scores had improved and American standings had moved upward.

This is to argue that federal intervention in local education can work through strong accountability measures which, implicitly, Spellings is saying, states and school districts do not have the political courage to enact. “Sadly, federal policymakers have loosened standards since 2009. A substantial number of schools have been exempted from NCLB’s accountability requirements. Having been granted waivers from the law, most states and localities no longer impose consequences on many of the schools that aren’t making adequate progress.” This is at least partially true though it also ignores the fact the accountability standards — 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 — would soon leave pretty much every school in the country in “school improvement” status, which would then become a meaningless designation.

With a federal government up to its ears in debt and societal obligations of every sort (defense, social safety nets, health insurance, etc.), the solution seems obvious. Follow the United States Constitution: eliminate all federal education spending and legislation.