Written by: David Casalaspi
This past week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held hearings with Acting Secretary of Education John King to discuss how the Department of Education (ED) should implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
During the hearings, Chairman John Kline (R-MN) belabored the point that the ESSA was intended to reduce the federal role in education, and he warned King not to abuse his secretarial power as his predecessor Arne Duncan had. “There’s a very clear purpose behind the ESSA,” Kline said. “The intent is to reduce the federal role and restore state and local control.” In response, King acknowledged the preeminence of states and localities under the law, and he tried to assuage Republicans that the ED would not overstep its boundaries. Nevertheless, he did remind the committee that the ESSA also carved out an important federal role by requiring the ED to oversee state efforts to reduce the achievement gap and improve educational quality. In the past, states and localities have not had a good track record in this area, and King hinted that he could remain an activist at the helm if need be. “We believe the law is clear, that states have a responsibility to close achievement gaps….We [the ED] are a civil rights agency enforcing a civil rights law.”
The ED’s Mission
The dissonance between Congressional Republicans and the ED raised an obvious, if often overlooked, question: Just what exactly is the Department of Education’s job? Is it supposed to be the activist civil rights agency that King and Duncan have envisioned? Or is it supposed to be something more subdued, a provider of technical assistance with little agenda in of its own?
A quick glance at the ED’s website reveals a mission statement comprised of seven goals which have remained unchanged since the Department was founded in 1979:
- Strengthen the federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.
- Supplement and complement the efforts the states, the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the states, the private sector, public and private nonprofit educational research institutions, community-based organizations, parents, and students to improve the quality of education.
- Encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents and students in Federal education programs.
- Promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through Federally supported research evaluation and sharing of information.
- Improve the coordination of Federal education programs.
- Improve the management of Federal education activities.
- Increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress and the public.
Essentially, this suggests the ED has three broad aims: ensuring access to equal educational opportunities (goal 1); streamlining the federal bureaucracy and promoting transparency for federal education programs (goals 3,5,6,7); and supporting and advising education policymakers, practitioners, and stakeholders in their own initiatives to improve educational quality (goals 2,4).
The Most Important Goal
When the ED was created in 1979, it was the supporting and advising aim that was deemed the most important. After all, education is a reserved power in the Constitution, and the federal government had historically only gotten involved when necessary to protect students’ civil rights. At the signing ceremony for the law creating the ED, President Jimmy Carter celebrated the advisory role that the ED would play, arguing that academic stagnation too often stemmed from the fact that there was “too much red-tape, too much confusion, [and] an inadequate consultative process.” President Carter told his audience that when he had been Governor of Georgia (a job in which he estimated 25% of his time had been devoted to education issues), he never knew who in Washington he could turn to for education advice. “In the future I hope that everyone will know this is the Secretary of Education, and that’s the person that I’ll go to to get the answer to a question or to resolve a problem or to overcome a difficulty.” He went on to emphasize this consultation role later in his remarks as well: “I believe that in the future we can have a much more responsive Federal government, where if a problem should arise in an embryonic way, an educator can know exactly where to get an answer.” Indeed, it was clear in his remarks that the preeminent goal of the Department would be to provide assistance to state and local agencies—to serve as a clearinghouse of sound education policy recommendations and suggestions for practice. Problems would be brought to the ED from below, and the ED would merely proffer advice on how best to proceed.
While the Department’s mission statement has remained unchanged since its inception almost 37 years ago, the individuals at its head have moved far beyond the role of Chief Education Consultant. Over the past twenty-five years, Secretaries Lamar Alexander (1991-1993), Richard Riley (1993-2001), Rod Paige (2001-2005), Margaret Spellings (2005-2009), and Arne Duncan (2009-2015), have each gone further than their predecessor to pressure, and even force, states to adopt certain policy solutions—namely, tougher curriculum standards and aligned standardized tests. They have justified this by invoking the language of civil rights and capitalizing on a shift in national concern away from “assuring access to equal educational opportunities” and towards “assuring access to equal educational outcomes.” Under their stewardship, this goal has come to supplant all the others.
Clashes to Continue
According to Representative Kline, the ESSA was designed to pull the ED back into its more natural advisory role. To King and others, though, the law appears to be a continuation of policies designed to promote equal educational outcomes. In this way, both Congress and the ED appear to be trying to maximize two contradictory values: equality in outcomes and local autonomy. And as long as both goals remain legitimate aims of the Department, we can expect clashes to continue.
Contact David: firstname.lastname@example.org
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