Hess and Kelly: What should a federal education agenda look like?

edIn a time when the Obama Administration’s tenure is winding down and when Congress has yet to make any significant progress toward a remake of ESEA, some measured thoughts about the role of the federal government in American education are quite timely.

Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly, of the American Enterprise Institute, have offered their thoughts in a lengthy article penned for National Affairs.  Hess and Kelly discuss what a federal education agenda ought to look like.

The article begins by reminding conservatives as well as liberals that they are guilty of a very mixed record on education policy.

First off, they urge conservatives to abandon the “let’s get rid of the federal level cabinet position for education” and its associated push to remove the federal government from American education:

To start, it is essential to abandon unhelpful rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education or “getting the federal government out of education.” The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling — and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

Actually, Hess and Kelly find it quite ironic that Republicans continually use “federal government out of education” rhetoric, when Republicans have actively campaigned to keep Title I and special education funding, even in the days of the sequester. Furthermore, they remind their readers that these two elements make up a large portion of the federal education budget every year, so it is not as if Republicans have only favored niche education issues.

But Hess and Kelly also argue that most every federal education initiative, be it the conservative led NCLB or the liberal led Race to the Top, is bound to go awry because of the many connection points on down to classroom level that provide more than ample opportunities for confusion and distortion. Knowing this, the federal government should take advantage of its unique role and be involved in education in ways that suit its particular context. This comes in two areas: “Transparency and Research” and “Trust-Busting.” Here is a brief outline of what Hess and Kelly propose:

Two such tasks in particular suggest themselves. The first deals with the public goods of providing accurate, comparable measures and information needed to help empower parents, voters, state and local officials, and educators and of supporting the kind of basic research necessary for dynamic markets and entrepreneurial problem-solving. The second enlists the federal government in support of “trust-busting” and bureaucracy-taming?— enabling promising new providers to challenge education monopolies, working to correct the legacy of federal micromanagement, and helping to free state and local reformers from the burden of their predecessors’ bad decisions.

In conclusion, Hess and Kelly hope for a “constructive, if limited, role for the federal government in education.” This has not yet happened in their estimation, and the elections of 2014 and 2016 provide a welcome chance for this sort of “constructive” approach.

Perhaps even those in the liberal camp, such as Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, would be willing to support the two roles of the federal government called for by Hess and Kelly, provided that two others which the federal government is certainly tasked with handling and which directly impact schools are added to the list: ensuring equity and decreasing poverty.  The fact that Hess and Kelly only vaguely reference these two issues, with their discussion of Title I and special education, speaks to the remaining gulf between liberals and conservatives on education policy.

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