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Derrick Darby


Education Run by the States? #ABadIdea

Posted: 12/08/11 12:56 PM ET

Shifting power from the federal to state governments isn't the solution to education reform in America. It's a bad idea and it will only make a quality K-12 public school education for all children an unreachable ideal.

Steve Jobs attended public schools in a poor California neighborhood. He had the good sense -- at a tender young age -- to demand that his adoptive parents move him to a better school by threatening to drop out. Imagine that: Jobs could have been a middle school drop out! Steve was lucky they complied, as are legions of Apple fans. Many children are not so lucky, however. And things could get much worse for them if presidential candidates promising to "turn out the lights" at the Department of Education get their wish. We all know that there is much wrong with public education in America and want to fix it. But getting the federal government out of the business of education is a bad idea.

Quality schools provide a pathway to jobs, opportunities, and success. America's beleaguered public schools place many children at a competitive disadvantage relative to children with better schooling alternatives. Voters that depend on public schools should know that shifting complete authority for public education and school financing to the states is a terrible solution for black and brown children, disabled children, children of the poor, the struggling middle class, and the Occupiers all across the nation protesting the growing wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Republican presidential candidates want to shift control of public education from Washington to Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, Topeka, Harrisburg, Hartford, Madison, Montgomery and other state capitals across America. Newt Gingrich wants to weaken Washington's role in public schools by limiting its power to gathering education-related statistics. Mitt Romney, a former defender of No Child Left Behind, now wants "to get the federal government out of education." Michele Bachmann promises to shut down the Department of Education if she's elected. And Rick Perry not only decries federal expansion into public schooling, he deems it unconstitutional and counter to the value of local control.

Other Republicans, some Democrats, and many education reformers don't want to get the feds completely out of education. They want the federal government to support the creation of semi-private alternatives to traditional public schools, such as charter schools, and to support greater school choice. These pro-charter and pro-school choice reforms have gone hand-in-hand with rallying against teacher unions, teacher tenure, and calling for greater accountability of school districts receiving federal education funds.

Distrust of Washington has been a primary motivation for those seeking to get the feds out of education. But it's unclear why we should entrust state governments with greater authority over public education and school financing, especially when not all that long ago a sitting president had to deploy federal troops to escort children into state-enforced racially segregated schools. The Republican candidates will object that this is "ancient" history, and that America is now a post-racial society (for God's sake we have a black man and his family in the White House, and until recently another black man running to take his place). They will say that we have no reason to fear that states will use their new powers to return America to racial apartheid or to violate fundamental constitutional rights.

They will say that the real problem is that the federal government is just too damn expensive, and since education is such a big drain on the federal budget (around $68 billion to be exact) it's an obvious place to cut wasteful government spending. So shifting educational authority to state governments is not about wanting to return America to a bygone era of subjecting racial minorities to the tyranny of states hell-bent on forcibly segregating them into undesirable communities with lower quality schools. It's simply about basic economics -- making the federal government less expensive and alleviating the burden on taxpayers struggling to make ends meet.

If economics is the main motivation, it is obvious that shifting authority over education from federal to state government is the worst thing that can happen to the millions of American families struggling to find decent jobs, pay their bills, and provide their children with a quality public education. The same economic pressures that are driving Tea Partiers, Anti-Federalists, and fiscally conservative Republicans and Democrats to advocate cutting the federal education budget are also impacting state governments and forcing them to make deep cuts to public education. As a result, public schools are increasingly relying upon charity and corporate sponsors for school funding. Who knows? We may not be far from the day where we see McDonalds, Viagra, Cialis, Nike, Apple and other corporate ads and logos in classrooms and school gymnasiums.

Lucky families and families with economic resources can take advantage of better alternatives such as private or charter schools or public schools in affluent neighborhoods like the one the Jobs family moved to. But many everyday American families -- short on luck, bailout money, and still waiting for Superman to rescue them -- can't afford these costlier options. So their unlucky kids will be at a serious disadvantage in the competition for jobs and opportunities to kids from well-resourced families that can afford to buy better schooling, or poorer kids that are lucky enough to gain entry into quality charter schools with limited slots (and not be tracked into remedial or special education slots but that's another article).

Putting a quality public school education beyond the reach of some children is unfair and shameful. All parents -- including those that are unlucky or can't afford private school or a house in a quality public school district -- should be able to tell their kids that they can be the next Steve Jobs if only they go to school and make good grades. Cutting the feds out of education, and shifting authority to the states, will only expedite the process of establishing a two track public education system in America: one for haves and the lucky, and one for have-nots and the unlucky.

As we look ahead to MLK celebrations, and the ten year anniversary of No Child Left Behind next month, and as we prepare for the 2012 presidential election -- where fair equality of opportunity will be the single most important issue if the 99% continue to raise their voices -- we must figure out how the federal government can work together with the states to provide equal educational opportunity so that all children have a fair shot at being America's next Steve Jobs, and so that all children have equal access to the opportunities afforded by a quality K-12 public education.


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