Time for national conversation on federal role in education


The recent dust-up over the decision by the state to take control of 11 low-performing schools from the hands of the Baltimore school system is a perfect illustration of why we must have a national conversation about education.

Since Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958, we have moved from a time when the federal government had almost no role in K-12 education to an era in which the scope and magnitude of federal policy are ubiquitous.

The seeds of this federal expansion are in the failure of some states and local districts to ensure the rights of minorities, to provide legal recourse for children with disabilities and to provide an equitable education to children who are poor and not native English language learners. A vacuum had been created, and the federal government asserted a role on behalf of those students with special needs.

The result of the incremental nature of the development of federal policy has been the failure to have a dialogue about the implications of what roles various actors have today and how that differs from the pre-NDEA days.

What is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure the appropriate education of all children - regardless of where they live - under various provisions of the Constitution, including the general welfare clause, the citizenship clause and the interstate commerce clause? After all, we live in an era when people commonly live in more than one state (I have lived in four), therefore making the burden of a poorly educated or uneducated person a matter of national concern.

We also never have had a national discussion about what we expect students to know and be able to do when they exit high school, and what we believe to be the roles of students, parents and communities.

What responsibility do students, especially secondary school students, have for their own learning? What is the role of the federal government? Of state education boards and state education agencies? Of local boards and agencies? Of schools, teachers and school leaders?

How are teachers best prepared? What is appropriate pay for a teacher relative to other professions? Is there a federal role in ensuring interstate equity of resources for education?

While I do not naively expect that a dialogue will answer all, or even most, of these questions, I am certain that unless we begin this process, what happened in Maryland will be but a skirmish in the battle ahead.

In the Baltimore case, what was virtually ignored in the political food fight that took place in Annapolis was any discussion of what's at stake. And what's at stake is the future and lives of thousands of minority and poor children who live in a city that has not been able to provide an effective education for many years in these seven middle and four high schools.

It is not coincidental that prisons are filled with men and women who are functionally illiterate. The children who attend these 11 schools, and thousands like them in other states, deserve a better future.

While good old-fashioned politics was at the center of what occurred, the situation might have had a more peaceful ending if there had ever been a discussion about when, why and how the state might intervene using federal law as the lever for change.

Christopher T. Cross, a former president of the Maryland State Board of Education and an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, is chairman of an education consulting firm. His e-mail is chris@edstrategies.net.

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