On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to start pulling the Federal Government out of K-12 education. This action has been expected, especially after he nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The executive order has moved the emphasis of the Federal government from ensuring educational equality to promoting educational choice.
This executive order has a foundational basis in the United States Constitution, which does not mention education at all. Therefore, based on the 10th Amendment, the governance of education is left to the states. For strict constructionists, this move by President Trump is constitutional and welcomed.
However, the broad constructionists point to Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which states that Congress shall provide for the “general welfare of the United States.” The general welfare has been interpreted to include quality education for all children. This has resulted in the Federal government being involved in K-12 education, especially in recent years.
The executive order signed by President Trump is, at the least, short-sighted in the present and devastating for the long run. One only has to go back to the 1950s to find critical interventions by the Federal government in K-12 education in the United States.
In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling, the Supreme Court finally overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling which had made Separate but Equal facilities constitutional in the United States. In education, separate but equal resulted in unequal education.
On September 2, 1958, the National Defense Education Act was quickly passed as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. This act provided additional funds to states and local school districts to enhance curriculum and instruction in science and math courses. Many of these grants became known as the Eisenhower Grants.
Shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson declared his Great Society campaign, which included his War on Poverty. Begun in 1965, Head Start, which is still with us today, was an essential part of this program.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
In 1965, Title I, as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provided additional financial assistance to local school districts with a high percentage of poor children.
Title IX in 1972: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. When I began teaching in Knox County Schools in 1973, the high schools did not have any athletic teams for girls. Girls’ basketball, volleyball, soccer, and softball all came about as a result of Title IX.
Two recent programs instituted by the Federal government which have become politically controversial are No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards. Not all of No Child Left Behind can be considered a failure. It did hold schools more accountable for what students were learning. Some of the accountability pieces of the legislation are still with us.
It should be remembered that the Common Core Standards originated with the states and not the federal government. The United States Department of Education simply adopted these standards, especially in math, as requirements to receive Race to the Top funds. Many of the criticisms of the standards in math were unfounded and some criticisms about other disciplines, which do not have common core standards, were basically false. If students in the United States are to make gains in mathematics when compared with students in other advanced countries, common core standards must be implemented by the state governments.
All of the programs and rulings listed above came from the Federal government.
Many of those who advocate returning education to the states and excluding the role of the Federal government in especially K-12 education, make the following claim, “Local school boards know what’s best for the children in their communities.” But is this correct? The economic competition and technological threats faced by our children today are international. Many local school boards and/or individual school board members are so provincial in their outlook that they do not comprehend the global competition we face.
I have been an educator for 43 years in two different states, and I have seen individuals run for a seat on the local school board specifically in order to fire the football coach, fire the superintendent or director of schools, force changes in the curriculum, or they have some other “axe to grind” with the school system. One of my students came to class a few days ago very upset. The local school board in her home town canceled the band program and fired the band director in order to balance the budget. Don’t misunderstand my point. Most school board members are local folks who want to have the best schools possible for their children. Serving on a local school board is a difficult and thankless job, and it is difficult to get good people to run. But, too often, I have seen the criticisms above play out in the states and/or communities where I have lived. The issues and competition we face today are too serious for these scenarios to continue.
Removing the influence of the Federal government from K-12 education is a step back in time, and it will be a disaster for improving public education in the United States.