Thursday, April 02, 2015

Level of government control and fund distribution issues in education reflect those from 50 years ago

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the government control and fund distribution concerns in education, Alyson Klein writes for Education Week. Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law. The law increased Washington's investment in K-12 education to help the nation's poorest children.

Making sure states and districts used the funds properly turned out to be a challenge. The money was intended to help the poorest students. Schools were happy to receive monetary help but didn't necessarily want to take government suggestions about how to implement it. "This is a nation of states and a nation of local control," said Michael W. Kirst, who in 1965 served in the federal Office of Education and is now the president of the California state school board, Klein writes. ". . . It's the nature of our federalism that makes this job so hard."

The current tone of bills in Congress indicates that the next version of ESEA will "give states a lot more control over key parts of the law, including accountability, teacher quality and spending," Klein reports. But the question remains: how much should or can federal power be reduced without endangering the poorest children's opportunity to receive a good education?

Some conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats claimed that the ESEA's aid would "give the federal government a reason to interfere with local control of schools," Klein writes. Rep. Frank T. Bow, R-Ohio, said in March 1965 that the John administration and supporters of the bill "are eager to promote what they call the excellence of educational opportunity, and they can do so only by imposing their views about curriculum, teaching methods and textbooks on the local school districts.  . . . This bill is the foot in the door for federal control of education, make no mistake about it."

The 1965 law had few specifications. More than $1 billion in funds were simply supposed to go to areas with lots of poor students. Some school districts used the money to build swimming pools, install toilets and create opportunities only for white students. "Congress, over the course of more than a half a dozen rewrites of the ESEA, eventually tightened the reins," Klein reports.

Now the law has taken a civil rights flavor; for example, the No Child Left Behind law requires that states intervene in schools whose minority students aren't producing good results, even if the rest of the student population is succeeding. Discrimination and inequality in schools are still issues, said Elizabeth King, director of education policy at The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, a coalition in Washington.

Now the NCLB law has gone 13 years without an update and is overdue for one. "I think [the ESEA] didn't really do as much as it could have or as much as was needed to be done to improve the education of the people we initially targeted," said Edmund W. Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University and Teachers College, Klein writes. "I would vote for [the law today], but I wouldn't vote for it with the same confidence I had in '65 that it would solve all our problems."

Congressional lawmakers want to rewrite the current law, but many are skeptical the very partisan Congress's ability to pass such a major education initiative. "What's happening now is that mistaken policy is being cleaned up," said Jack Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee from 1967 to 1994. The problem, he said, is that "we're going to throw out the good with the bad. We need another vision." (Read more)

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