Education at a Crossroads: A New Direction for Federal and State Education Policy

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School busOverview

In recent years, driven by members of Congress and presidents from both parties, federal involvement in the day-to-day operations of the K-12 system has radically increased and is “upside-down,” overemphasizing compliance with federal process requirements and underemphasizing results—specifically improving the academic achievement of all students, especially poor and minority students. Student achievement is improving marginally on the same trajectory as it has for the past decade, but the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students persists. Clearly neither federal top-down mandates nor categorical and competitive grant resources have significantly affected student achievement.

By statute and constitution our system of K-12 education administration is overwhelmingly a state responsibility.  The prescribed federal role is one of supplementing state and local efforts, providing additional resources for disadvantaged learners and conducting research into best practices and proven reforms.

The effects of federal policy are now grossly disproportionate to its contribution to the K-12 endeavor.  If we continue on our current policy path, federal resources, which now account for slightly more than 7 percent of the enterprise, will drag the entire system into the rabbit-hole world where compliance with federal dictums masquerades as reform. 

If we continue on the current path, we should expect one of two results: the federal government provides an additional $500 billion per year to take over the entire system, leaving state and local governance partners as wholly owned subsidiaries or the federal government “captures” (by more aggressive and intrusive condition of grant requirements) state and local revenues (primarily in the form of property taxes) and directs from Washington expenditures of all revenues and also administers the system. We find neither of these options practical (federal deficits will preclude any significant increase in federal appropriations) or productive (effectively delivering and administering educational services for the entire K-12 system from Washington, D.C.) or responsive to the diverse needs of students nationwide.

Our children deserve better.  They deserve an education system where resources—whatever their source—are maximized, not spent on procedural and compliance issues.  They deserve—and we should require—that federal resources enhance state structures and support state efforts.

The NCSL Task Force on Federal Education Policy offers some recommendations for a more clearly defined and productive role for the federal government.  Specifically:

  • Concentrate available federal funding on those populations most at-risk, using a research-based formula that emphasizes the neediest students instead of trying to leverage system-wide reforms with the 7 percent federal contribution.
  • Funding IDEA at promised levels would immediately free $16 billion annually that, because of federal maintenance of effort requirements, would be redirected to reform and innovation at the state and local levels.
  • Make permanent changes to the tax credit provisions of the bonding laws that apply to school construction.  This action also would free tens of billions of dollars in state and local resources that would otherwise be spent on debt-service for school bonds.
  • Revitalize the federal focus on research and reporting on what works and why without picking or mandating how and when “winning strategies” should be required by law or “encouraged” by withholding additional federal resources.
  • Use any remaining funding to reward and encourage true innovation—not conformity with others or compliance with a checklist of reforms, but progress toward performance gains.

The NCSL Task Force on Federal Education Policy believes that the shortcomings of the U.S.  K-12 system reflect the shortcomings of our society.  Federal intervention in the K-12 system—largely through process and compliance actions—has helped to address the most blatant and egregious of the historical access and equity issues.  But neither state nor federal actions have addressed the economic disparity that so often predicts disadvantaged student achievement. That has not stopped federal policymakers from applying process-oriented solutions to far more complex problems with disastrous results, i.e., No Child Left Behind.  Student achievement gains do not occur because the federal government reaches beyond its capacity to mandate universal administrative processes or universal student achievement. Federal overreach simply usurps the role of states and localities in the process and adds to the confusing array of reforms that parents and educators continually face. 

If we are to maximize our efforts and resources, the business of K-12 policy, like any endeavor, should be focused, transparent and have clearly defined roles for all.  It appears to the members of the task force that the goals of the K-12 system would be more transparent and its efforts more focused on student achievement if each of the players in the governance system reevaluated its role and directed its energy and resources toward those policy issues it can most effectively carry out.