Washington’s Education Stalemate

Why improving our schools looks hopeless on Capitol Hill.
May 2015
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Fifty years ago, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act expanding the federal role in education was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Six years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, armed with a bucketload of cash from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program, leveraged that money to jump-start the reform effort called Race to the Top.

Both of those programs remain on the books, but both are imperiled by Washington’s dysfunction. Congress has yet to include Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion program, in the new budget, and it hasn’t reauthorized the Johnson-era education law, which was last authorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind and was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007.

Instead, Congressional Republicans are backing legislation that would allow states to opt out of federal education requirements. They have the support of such conservative think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth. Democrats, meanwhile, just want to loosen the reins of federal control a bit. They have assembled a collection of odd bedfellows -- the major teachers unions, which have never been happy with federal testing requirements; civil rights groups; and, interestingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The bottom line is that we cannot seem to agree on a national education policy. We can’t settle on what standards to put in place and whether they should be national or state-by-state. We can’t decide what range of school choice to allow, what amount of testing makes sense, how to ensure teacher quality and what levels of funding are necessary. We are even further from any meaningful consensus on who should have ultimate control.

At the same time, other nations, both advanced and developing, continue to outperform us. A 2013 six-year study of 15-year-olds’ math results in 65 countries showed many Asian nations -- China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan -- soaring, while most European nations muddled along in the middle of the pack. The United States finished at the bottom end of the European cluster, along with Russia and Slovakia. Studies limited to advanced nations show U.S. students ranking in the bottom third in literacy and math. Considering the nearly $700 billion a year we spend on our 100,000 or so K-12 schools, those results are disheartening.

What’s more, the demographics of our school districts are trending toward trouble. A recent analysis of 2012-2013 data shows that for the first time in half a century, the majority of students enrolled in K-12 public schools are poor enough to qualify for the federal school lunch program. And they don’t necessarily live where you might think. Recent studies by the University of Virginia and the Brookings Institution reveal a remarkable shift in poverty rates from core cities to inner suburbs, putting pressure on schools unused to handling significant numbers of poor children.

As the debate over how to improve public education has entered the national political arena, there is only room for dismay. The Common Core standards developed over the past decade to measure the performance of K-12 students were intended to represent a consensus among the nation’s governors -- not Washington -- on what progress states should expect to see in math and reading every year.

Initially, 45 states and the District of Columbia embraced the standards. But now, as the presidential primary season approaches, almost every governor aspiring to the GOP nomination has changed sides and come out against the new standards. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin originally endorsed the idea -- last year Christie even chastised fellow Republicans for switching because they “care more about the primaries than anything else.” Now he has joined the switchers. The lone exception is Jeb Bush, whose support remains intact.

Washington won’t be any help. Progress toward educational improvement will depend on individual schools, school districts and some state governments that choose to innovate, break some old rules and take risks. Some charter schools, in particular, show a willingness to do so.

Those who suffer most in this increasingly ideological and vitriolic debate are teachers, who often are the first ones blamed for mediocre student results, which helps explain why half of them leave their posts in the first five years. So it’s particularly interesting to see that when teachers are actually allowed to run schools -- around 70 facilities in 15 states, most of them charters and many with challenging demographics -- those schools show quick improvement in student performance. It’s an idea that is spreading, according to David Osborne of Reinventing Government fame, who now runs the education reform project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

That’s one example, but there are so many others that it makes sense to keep track and spread the word. And that is what a new foundation-funded nonprofit called Education Post intends to do. It’s a self-described “nonpartisan communications organization” that intends to fact-check the national debate, highlight successes and improve the conversation. We need it desperately.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com