Guest Column

Symbolism or Vision? The Federal Role in Education


Is the federal role in education becoming irrelevant? Some pundits point to recent state and local school improvement efforts, applauding the actions as creative and pro-active and contrasting them to a federal education platform that has been diminished to ceremony and platitudes.

The recent impeachment of the President and resignations of two House Speakers seem only to support this perspective.

Before the Clinton/Lewinsky story broke, Donald Kettl, director of the Center for Public Management at The Brookings Institution, compared the policies of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson with those of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Thompson set tough standards for Milwaukee's school district and threatened to dissolve the district if the standards are not met. At about the same time, Gingrich challenged schools to teach the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Gingrich's general challenge contrasts sharply with Thompson's bold and concrete proposal to hold a struggling district accountable for student achievement. But is it true, as Kettl suggested, that the federal government "is doing less and less of the high profile work every year" and is "increasingly tempted to promote symbols rather than substance" in education policy?

Local Autonomy
The federal government never has played a large role in elementary and secondary schools, providing relatively little funding for public schools.

Since 1979, Washington has contributed between 5.6 and 9.1 percent of the total dollars spent on K-12 public education. The states and districts have shared, on average, the rest of the financial burden almost evenly, but it is the states--and not the federal government or districts--that have constitutional authority for providing a free public education.

School districts, though, maintain a great deal of autonomy in making the most important education policy decisions. Curriculum decisions, resource allocation to schools, teacher hiring and professional development all are handled at the local level. Further, schools, and to an even greater extent teachers, continue to make the most important decisions about issues that actually affect students and learning, including selection of instructional strategies, grouping of students and discipline.

In truth, all levels of government affect schools and student learning by establishing a vision, setting goals and effective strategies and establishing priorities. Washington relies on the states and districts to implement its policies just as states and districts rely on schools and teachers to implement their policies.

Still, the federal government influences schools to a surprising degree. For example, Goals 2000 has helped states to implement standards-driven reforms widely cited for their promise in improving schools. Texas, Kentucky and the U.S. Department of Defense schools are among those systems that have taken full advantage of Goals 2000 and subsequently have seen student achievement improve.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study offers another example of how Washington inspires school change. States, districts and schools across the country are using information learned in the federally funded TIMSS to increase student learning in math and science.

Moreover, TIMSS has raised public awareness of the benefits of having data on student achievement that enable valid comparisons across schools, districts, states and countries. Policymakers along the political spectrum are agreeing on the importance of large-scale assessments of student achievement in holding schools accountable and determining how to teach students more effectively.

Vision and Voice
In addition to funding and administering programs, Washington is debating or has recently debated several important policy issues: Should poor students receive private school vouchers paid for by the government? Should there be a national test? What is the most effective way to teach young children to read? Should the federal government pay for building more schools and hiring more teachers?

These complex questions require careful consideration of our beliefs about public education and the roles of government. Although no specific action has resulted from these debates as of yet, inaction is due more to the lack of a national consensus and the checks and balances in our system of government than to the lack of will or creativity of federal officials.

Washington cannot and should not manage schools directly. But the federal government can and should help to establish a vision and a voice for public education that transcends district, ethnic and socioeconomic lines to ensure the prosperity of our country and the success of all citizens.

Remember, it was not long ago that Washington had to force states and districts to provide an equitable education for African-American, immigrant and disabled children.

Today, Washington-despite impeachment, resignations and scandal--continues to play a vital role in guaranteeing access and pushing for academic excellence as well as setting goals for education, researching and disseminating best practices and mobilizing resources.

States and districts should take the lead in shaping the education our children receive. But like state and local policymakers, federal officials wrestle with important and difficult policy issues that strike at the heart of public education. While vision and policymaking are not as immediate to student learning as the relationships among student, parent and teacher, neither are they mere symbols.

The key to optimal student learning is for federal, state and local policies to support these relationships and guide them according to the values and priorities of our country and communities.

Denise Glyn Borders is president of The McKenzie Group, 1100 17th St., N.W., Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20036. E-mail: Scott Joftus is director of federal initiatives for the education consulting firm.