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How Should Politics Influence Education Policy?

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EPSA Education Policy Discussion Panel

From L to R: Jack Jennings, Wendy Puriefoy, Jeffry Henig, Christopher Cross
Photo: Susan Cook

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By Patricia Lamiell

How much does national education policy make a difference in classrooms, and how much do national politics drive education policy in America, where schools, curricula and teaching have been controlled at the local and state levels since the dawn of public schools?

A lot, according to three distinguished education policy analysts who took part in a panel discussion on February 8 to inaugurate the College’s new Education Policy and Social analysis (EPSA) Department — and potentially never more so than now, as Congress weighs reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind law against the backdrop of a highly polarized presidential campaign.

The panel discussion, held in TC’s Cowin Conference Center, was moderated by Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education and EPSA department chair. It featured Christopher T. Cross, a former U.S. Under Secretary of Education and current Chairman of Cross & Joftus, an education-policy consulting firm; Jack Jennings, founder and recently retired Director of the Center on Education Policy, an education research firm; and Wendy D. Puriefoy, President of the Public Education Network (PEN), the nation’s largest network of community-based school reform organizations.

Prompted by Henig, the panelists—who were welcomed by TC President Susan Fuhrman—discussed the often bitter and sometimes even violent disagreements on federal versus local control of education policy that have erupted since the school desegregation battles of the 1960s. Puriefoy told how, as a young woman, she monitored court-ordered desegregation in Boston,  visiting schools and reporting back to a federal judge whose appointment owed to the victory of  Lyndon Johnson, a passionate advocate of school desegregation, in the 1964 presidential election. Reaching much further back, Puriefoy argued that desegregation surely would never have occurred had not Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. “Federal politics and education policy are inextricably linked,” she said. 
 
The bottom line for all three panelists: Most major changes to American schools have resulted from federal law, jurisprudence or policy. Cross noted that Title I funding, enacted in 1965, provided extra funding for schools with economically disadvantaged children. Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) in 1975, when the notion that children with disabilities should be educated—let alone integrated into classrooms with non-disabled children, as is happening now—“was a revolutionary idea.”  NCLB, enacted in 2002, has had an enormous effect on how and what gets taught, in Cross’s view, forcing teachers to focus on testing at the expense of deep learning. And the Race to the Top program of the Obama administration has significantly affected spending priorities, teaching and learning in public schools.

“The question of whether national policy has influenced education unquestionably has to be answered ‘yes,’” Cross said. “The reality is that almost everything that goes on is, in fact, guided by what happened in federal policy at some point, even though people in the classroom may not recognize it.”

The idea that education policy is or somehow should be apolitical simply is not borne out by history or current facts, Jennings said. A recent case in point:  If John McCain had been elected president in 2008, he, unlike President Obama, would very likely have allowed thousands of teachers’ jobs to be eliminated by drastic budget cuts made necessary by the recession. And should Obama fail to win reelection this coming fall, a Republican president may well seek to do away with the U.S. Department of Education.

“Policy should really be integrated into politics,” Jennings said. “If people of good will don’t deal with policy,” he said, decisions will be left to those who are not equipped to make them—or worse, who are simply uninterested in fairness and equity in education.

The panelists were unanimous in their criticism of NCLB, which Puriefoy said has “gone horribly awry,” but they differed on what to do about it. The law has not been amended since its bipartisan passage in early 2002, and while both Democrats and Republicans now agree it should be changed, “Republicans don’t want to give credit to Obama for amending it,” Jennings said.

Puriefoy concurred, adding that the environment in Congress “has become much more poisonous, and it has become more difficult to create the environment we need in order to transform education.” And while education has always been a polarizing issue, and minorities have always had to fight for access to good education, for the first time in the country’s history, “people don’t believe their children’s lives will be better than theirs,” Puriefoy said. “They don’t believe in the ability of institutions to bring about change.”

So can anything be done—and is this year’s presidential election an opportunity to put national education issues before voters in a way they will notice? Cross was skeptical, but said he would like both parties to discuss education issues after the election to find common ground.  Jennings suggested creating federal-state partnerships modeled on those in Germany, but Puriefoy noted that Germany also supports children and families with programs other than education. “Schools can’t be responsible on their own,” she said. “They need help.”

To Henig’s final question—“What would you like to see in the next administration?”—Cross replied that the U.S. Department of Education should “get rid of the silos—English Language Learners, Special Education” and others, which are too large, bureaucratic and costly. Jennings warned that the incoming president should not listen to the “radical right,” but instead “totally rethink” school financing, which is currently based on property taxes, and fight the “long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country” by pursuing a new agenda that focuses on quality curriculum and teaching. Puriefoy called for a rededication to educating “all sectors of children,” strong federal standards, and “getting rid of states’ rights.

“This fragmentation in education is just unacceptable. We need a new intellectual contract in this country,” she said. “Good policy follows good intention. If we resolve to educate every child in this country, regardless of ZIP code, we’re going to have to dismantle what we’re doing. We’re not going to get there without significant disruption.”
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