President Obama is Staying the Course in Education

President Obama cares about education. This was clearly on display in his State of the Union Address. Fiscal frugality and the need to rein in the federal government are political winds blowing strongly in the new Congress and perhaps in the nation at large. In response, the president has tacked to the center in other areas of the economy such as business and banking. For education, in contrast, he has stayed the course. This means more federal dollars and more federal control.

There are two opposing schools of thought on this. I will call the first “principled”, not necessarily in praise of its tenets but in recognition that it emerges from a coherent conceptual position. It has two facets: classic federalism, i.e., reserving to state and local governments and individual citizens powers not expressly granted to the federal government, and a market-based approach to the provision of services, including education. From the principled perspective, the federal government has little constitutional authority to dictate how children should be educated, and its increasing role in doing so leads to a homogenization of education services and curtailment of a market in which parents can choose among many types of schools and schooling for their children. From this perspective it is time to halt the shift of control of education to the federal government, which began in earnest in the Lyndon Johnson administration (the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act), accelerated dramatically with the passage of No Child Left Behind in the George W. Bush administration, and was capped with an unparalleled transfer of discretionary authority over education to the executive branch in the Race to the Top competition in the Obama administration.

I will call the second school of thought “opportunistic.” It is motivated to improve education outcomes for children, particularly those from low-income and minority backgrounds. It identifies reforms and programs that are thought to be desirable and uses the federal government as a means to advance them. The opportunistic approach can be pursued by either political party, both NCLB and Race to the Top are prime examples, and results in increasing centralization of decision-making. 

Whether the nation will follow the opportunistic or the principled approach will be the education battle line in the 112th Congress in which most new members of the House are conservative Republicans, some of whom campaigned on the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education. The president tried to sidestep this dividing line by characterizing Race to the Top, which he presented as a model for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as a competition that rewarded innovation that bubbled up from the states. But the terms of the competition in Race to the Top were set in Washington, and only states that were willing to march to the administration’s tune had a chance of winning. Shifting from punishment of noncompliance to reward of compliance is an important tactical shift for the federal government. But make no mistake, both are top-down efforts by Washington to dictate state and local action.

Was Race to the Top “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation” as the president said in his speech? It is far too soon to tally the results in terms of student achievement, but there is no doubt that it was the largest expansion of federal executive branch control in any generation. Whether this is to be the model for the future is the critical and contentious issue that Congress must soon address. This will not be a fight between good guys and bad guys – both sides care about education. It will be a fight between dramatically different visions of how the nation’s education future will be determined.