Schools and Politics: The Feds, the Locals, and School Reform

Summary: As with institutional racism, as with health care, in educational quality the federal government often is the court of necessary remedy where local leadership fails to guarantee equal protection to the disenfranchised.
In the recent Conservative Political Action Conference at which Republican presidential hopefuls were scrutinized, one relative outlier who needed to validate his bona fides was Bush the Third, Jeb of Florida. Unfortunately for his prospects with that particular political group, he has supported both immigration reform and the Common Core in its curricular and testing incarnations, both of which recommend him to a more moderate and broader audience but which render him suspicious to the very audience he courted.
As a political junkie drawn to this early circus on the 2016 circuit, I found myself focused more than usual on the Common Core tug of war, where partisans on both sides are soldiers in armies with broader agenda than merely the mechanics of school reform.
The proponents of Common Core argue the teaching of skills needed in a contemporary competitive global economy begins with a curriculum designed to teach those skills. Further the argument goes, the Common Core curriculum and the testing that supports it were designed with thorough participation of the states, though I suspect those antagonistic to Common Core find fault with that claim, and charge that the decks were stacked.
On the other side of the aisle, conservative types, with a heavy dose of Tea Party members, resent the incursion of the federal government into educational matters viewed as more properly the purview of localities, with all the cultural overtones implied by the diversity of community in this country. There is also the lingering suspicion that educational matters, in the end, can only be pursued in the microcosm of individual schools and districts, and the federal bureaucracy, to the extent it interferes, will only muck things up.
Well, with these battle lines drawn, we are confronted of late with deaths of people of color, largely African Americans, from Ferguson to New York to Chicago and beyond, at the hands of police. That Darrin Wilson could be exonerated for acting as he did, but deep fault be found in the racial culture surrounding him, no doubt describes the continuing institutional discrimination that haunts particularly black communities, but other communities of color as well.
It is no accident that the federal government plays a critical role in addressing these historical fault lines; nor is it accident that plaintiffs turn to the federal courts for remedy, because local authorities are too deeply immersed in the local culture to muster the requisite corrective perspective, not at all unlike Selma of the 1960’s.
From my vantage point, similar observations could be made about adequate health care. Though the state of Massachusetts stepped up prior to the Affordable Care Act, there are many corners of the republic where good enough health care is more the exception than the rule, and where the local hegemons show no sign of promoting remedy. Again, the federal government steps in to level the playing field and underscore equal protection for all (and along the way begin the process of lowing health care costs).
What does all of this have to do with the Common Core?
As with institutional racism, as with inadequate health care, so it is with floundering and failing schools. Where local jurisdictions have neglected or failed in their responsibilities, and/or by means of dysfunctional institutional structure effectively have denied equal access to quality education, then does not the federal government, as guarantor of equal protection under the constitution, have some responsibility toward remedy, in some cases as the only game in town?
The portfolio for education has more traditionally rested with the states and by implication with local communities. I have to say, having witnessed these last ten or so years of federal efforts to shoehorn local schools into No Child Left Behind, at best with mixed outcomes, there may be something that only local impetus can muster that the feds cannot dream of.
On the other hand, there is no question the feds have created an expectation of change without which change simply does not happen.
Most importantly, would the most badly dysfunctional urban and rural systems ever rouse themselves from their torpor, and from their grinding of their young students, without the bully whip of the feds?
Like institutional racism, like the legacy of poor health care, effective schooling is a fundamental civil rights issue without which other guarantees of equal footing under the law are worth only a little more than the paper upon which they are printed.
So. Common Core may be flawed; it may even have arrived as a manipulation and certainly as unsolicited in some quarters. It may be unworkable in the many instances of standardized testing in which its outcomes are to be evaluated. Certainly in the early going schools and school districts will seem to have performed even more poorly than they did before under more lenient standards.
Thus this is not a brief for Common Core itself, but a conclusion that the feds have constitutional responsibilities in education, in partnership with local boards, to insure that all kids have more or less equal access to quality schools, specifically in a context where localities have failed. Where we now do not or cannot act on this equation, we may hope for greater wisdom somewhere into the future.
To all camps Common Core is a symbol. Certainly for some deeply within their communities it represents federal overreach. To those aghast at the wasted human potential in too many of our children, Common Core represents an effort to override local inertia, and regards local kids as a national resource with a birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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2 Responses to Schools and Politics: The Feds, the Locals, and School Reform

  1. Tony B says:

    Right on the money, my friend. Arguments to fence out the feds and “let us decide locally” can lead education down a blind alley, certainly in states such as Alabama where public schools are notable for the absence of white students, and where state and local funding to upgrade those schools is scarce, and the political powers-that-be are indifferent to the problem.

    • schooldog says:

      Thanks for the note. I am told by a lawyer friend that the foot dragging of state and local authorities is not constitutionally actionable unless purposeful bias can be proven, which is a tough standard. Perhaps in a wiser time.

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