Duncan’s Problem: Education Philosophy, Not Overreach

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been widely criticized for federal overreach—federal grant competitions (Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, School Improvement Grants) dangled as an enticement for state legislatures to adopt Duncan’s pet policies merely to qualify to submit a proposal—and waivers (from the most onerous penalties of the old No Child Left Behind Act) conditioned on states’ adopting additional punitive policies narrowly defined by Duncan’s department. The Department of Education brags that it is responsible for the adoption across state governments of widespread reform designed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Although I am concerned that Duncan has been pushing his agenda (quite legally) through federal administrative rules without public debate in Congressional hearings and without the check and balance of a vote by Congress, I urge you to read Arthur Camins’ profound diagnosis of what ails today’s federal education policy:  “The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach.  It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers.”  Valerie Strauss reprinted Camins’ profound analysis in the Washington Post yesterday.

Our problem is our values not mere governance strategy. The Department of Education has been promoting public policy based on individualism at the expense of the common good: “Community and individualist values have been in tension throughout U.S. history. The diminishment of inequality that characterized the 1930s-1970s was the result of empathetic community responsibility values and strong unions.  The growing inequality of the 1980s through the present is the result of the dominance of competitive individualist values… When competition is the norm among parents for their children’s schools and among teachers for professional advancement, narrow individual solutions undermine broad systemic solutions.”

How has school choice worked out as a strategy for empowering parents living in poor communities?  “The rhetoric to support current education reform is that individual poor families should have choices about which schools their children attend just like rich folks.  Tellingly, this does not mean that rich and poor or black and white children attend the same schools.  Instead, new charter schools are located in racially and economically isolated communities so that poor families compete with one another for admission. The result has been increased segregation with no effort to ameliorate resource allocation differences between wealthy and poor communities.”

Camins believes that mistaking our much deeper philosophical dilemma in education policy for a governance problem of federal overreach will only further undermine the plight of children in our poorest communities. Efforts of the current Republican majority in both houses of Congress to reduce the federal role in education and return power to the states will further  “undermine efforts to support the nation-wide, democratically governed public system that is essential to successfully prepare students for life, work and citizenship…  Great advances for economic and social justice, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights laws are the result of federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  All of these benchmarks of progress have been initiated by local social and political action, but they have been achieved nationally.”

We must be especially wary, writes Camins, because “virtually unlimited political contributions and lobbying, the growing influence of wealthy foundations and recent undermining of voting rights have all eroded progressive equity-focused… policies,” not only at the federal level, but also across the states.

Camins’ solutions will require changing the philosophical frame. Instead of reducing the federal role, Congress needs to leverage the full power of the federal government behind a public system that serves the needs and protects the rights of all children—expanding opportunity through school funding equity, school integration, creation of well-paying jobs, a living wage, stronger support for families with children, increased support for the education of special education students and English language learners, more support for teachers’ professional growth and collaboration, and better teacher preparation programs. “Improvements will only come from a national commitment to the values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility….”

I urge you to read and re-read Camins’ thoughtful column.

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2 thoughts on “Duncan’s Problem: Education Philosophy, Not Overreach

  1. The lack of a social conscience has been problematic. Across all contours of our country. With Race to the Top, it was ingrained in our public education. Now, our school district in MA just “won” grant money for broadband, completely set up as a competition. Why is our federal government setting up public educators to compete with each other, when they want all schools to attain and achieve at a high level? There are “rounds” of grant-giving. This makes some schools look like real winners. What they have is a grant writer who is on top of these schemes, and has the time to take to write. Struggling schools do not have grant writers who have time. These are the schools that need the money first.

  2. An excellent article, Jan. As always, thanks for sharing with your readers. The mood in America does seem to be “I’ve got mine; now you get yours.” How sad that America’s children are the pawns in this disastrous game.

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