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Margaret Spellings Headshot

The Rub in Education: Federal v. Local Control

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Among recent top stories: the Obama Administration's move to remake K-12 education policy and significantly strengthen the hand of the federal government in the process. While policymakers on both sides of the aisle have been talking more than acting, the Administration has been diligently preparing its battle plans for an overhaul of No Child Left Behind. And it looks like they're about to do an end run around the Congress.

Here's where things are at the moment. People on both sides of the debate are reiterating
calls for "local control." Yet, interpreting what "local" means depends on who's saying it. For
example, a group of Senate Republicans recently introduced a package of bills that would remove pressure now put on states and districts by the federal government to improve schools and student achievement that is tied to our taxpayer dollars. Still others are calling to shutter the U.S. Department of Education, eliminating altogether the discrete role the federal government currently has in education. On the other end of the spectrum, teachers' unions and the policymakers who support them have been pleading for weaker accountability requirements that would allow local and state administrators and school boards to have more power and greater reign over the management of schools. In short we would return to the days of sending out money and hoping for the best -- a failed strategy we used for too many years.

In a perfect world where state and local administrators kept the best interests of students and taxpayers front and center, I'd be all for it. But the world isn't perfect, and in far too many places, state and local control means excuses, inaction, complacency, and union control. Our children, particularly those who most need us to have their backs, deserve better than that.

Sadly, left to their own devices, too many states and districts have not held themselves accountable for making much progress in enhancing student achievement and closing the staggering achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Instead, they have looked for escape hatches. When I was Secretary, I received an abundance of waiver requests to get out of doing the hard work required by the law. Two quick examples: Kentucky wanted to make accountability determinations every two years instead of annually and Utah asked to educate only 75 percent of its kids to grade level in reading and math. What parent in Kentucky would be satisfied with a report card that arrived every other year and which 25 percent of parents in Utah would be told their kids didn't matter enough to be educated to grade level?

These requests were made by the very adults in the system charged with overseeing the improvement of our schools: administrators and school boards. Not that we should be surprised. School boards are often populated with former teachers and administrators whose policies are aligned with those of the teachers' unions, including opposing teacher evaluation efforts, discouraging the opening of new charter schools despite pleas from parents and opposing school turnaround efforts.

We do need to be clear about the appropriate role of the federal government in education. A lot of hard earned taxpayer dollars are at stake so it's important to get it right. In my view, the federal government plays an important role in establishing broad goals, asking states to meet those goals, and holding their feet to the fire to make sure they are achieved. What the federal government should not be doing is getting involved in the day to day decision-making of running schools and managing budgets, setting curriculum, and deciding which teachers to hire and fire. These decisions are best left for those who are closest to the students they serve.

I find it interesting that in the midst of the debate over federal, state and local control, a recent
poll shows that Americans place education ahead of health care costs, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and Medicare and Social Security on the list of issues that Congress should focus
on. As such, my hope is that policymakers of all stripes remember that people do care about this issue, they believe the lives of their children are directly impacted by the education they receive, and they want the system they support with their hard earned dollars to be the best it can be for our kids. Shifting away from accountability won't take us forward...it will set us back.