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How US education policy is driven by crises, fear, and dumb questions

Education policy in American has been episodic, driven mostly by paranoia that the average American student is falling behind the rest of the world. This paranoia is especially intense during wartime or shortly after it.

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    Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, the ranking member on the Senate education panel, looks to members of the media as she and other Senate Democrats speak after a policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House and Senate are working to merge two differing education bills that would rewrite the nation’s much-criticized No Child Left Behind education law.
    Carolyn Kaster/AP
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Jefferson was a big proponent of public education.

He once said:

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.

John Adams was of a like mind. 

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

And yet, there was no provision in the Constitution that explicitly mentions that education is a responsibility of the federal government.

Jefferson drew up plans in his beloved state of Virginia to provide for the free education of the masses, and he was singularly responsible for the creation of the University of Virginia, which sits a short distance from Monticello.

Jefferson and Adams and similarly minded Founding Fathers perhaps found the virtue of education, the pleasure of reading books, and the importance of understand Greek, Latin, and the mathematics.

But in the largely agrarian world of 1776, book knowledge perhaps wasn’t nearly as important as facility with a gun or knowhow on how to plant crops and survive long, hard winters.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t go to college, but he was a voracious reader and in time would become a clever and effective lawyer on behalf of his clients.

It’s perhaps not that surprising that the first Department of Education was created right after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1867. It became clear in that epic clash of civilizations that education was vitally important to waging war.

That Cabinet status didn’t last for long, however, and soon the Department of Education would become merely an office, housed within the Department of Interior and then the Department of Agriculture.

As World War I concluded, it became clear that the federal government had to become even more involved in education policy, as fully two-thirds of those fighting on the American side were illiterate. The Smith-Hughes Act was passed by Congress in 1917 to increase funding for vocational training for those who weren’t necessarily college material.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Congress once again got involved in education policy and once again it was in response to perceived crisis. Recruiters found that many of the kids that they needed to fight for them were malnourished. Congress passed the National School Lunch Program in 1946 as a matter of national security.

In the middle of the cold war, another perceived crisis provided a boost to the federal role in education policy. The Russians launched Sputnik and it freaked out politicians in both political parties. The result was a dramatic increase in spending on science and math.

It wasn’t just national security that inspired federal action in education policy.

The landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Board of Education found that officially segregated schools were unconstitutional. The federal government had to step in and forcefully desegregate schools all over the country, including in places as far north as Boston.

It wasn’t until 1980, under Jimmy Carter, that the Department of Education was elevated again to a full Cabinet Department. Ronald Reagan promised to eliminate the newly created department, a promise he never kept.  Instead, his first secretary of Education, Terence Bell, issued a report entitled “A Nation At Risk," which made the case that our kids weren’t learning much in school and that our schools needed a kick in the pants.

The question remained: What to do about it?

Bill Clinton won reelection on the idea of school uniforms. School uniforms?

George W. Bush campaigned and won on the idea that our schools should improve quickly and that no child should be left behind.

When he passed his signature education achievement, conservatives like Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas voted no, because conservatives in their heart of hearts just don’t believe that the federal government has any role in education, no matter how badly the states screw it up.

Bush’s biggest goal was to test every student and when some students didn’t make the grade, fail the school.

This meant that schools started madly testing their kids, over and over again.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) leveraged federal money to make the states adopt those testing standards.

About seven years ago, that law expired, but nothing was passed to replace it, and like most laws passed by Washington, it didn’t die when it expired. It lives in perpetuity, unless something can replace it.

The Obama administration, in its short window of partisan control, enacted a Race to the Top program, which doubled down on the Bush idea of rewarding good schools that did what Washington told them to do.

Along with Race to the Top came Common Core, which was a private sector/business community/state effort to raise standards in all 50 states.

Common Core was not a law passed by President Obama, so when Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas says he is going to repeal Common Core, he is fibbing. There is no Common Core to repeal.

But the Obama administration has leveraged federal dollars to get the states to use Common Core standards.

Common Core has gotten a bad rap because it is smarter than the average parent who hates it. Much smarter. Parents look at Common Core homework and it makes no sense to them. Worse for Common Core’s proponents, every stupid rumor and dumb question that comes out of every classroom is immediately blamed on Common Core.

Common Core doesn’t do Sex Ed, as an example. But that doesn’t stop the haters from blaming Common Core for weird sex ed questions that little Suzy has to work on.

But I digress.

Both the House and the Senate, in this bitterly partisan atmosphere, have passed legislation to revamp NCLB. They want to ease the testing standards, get rid of the bureaucracy and improve education without overwhelming school districts with idiotic red tape.

The Senate bill is more bipartisan than the House bill chiefly because you need to be bipartisan to pass anything in the Senate and you don’t need to be bipartisan to pass anything in the House.

That being said, conservatives still rebelled in the House because the conservative House bill wasn’t conservative enough (i.e. it didn’t get rid of the Department of Education).

Education policy in American has been episodic, driven mostly by paranoia that the average American student is dumber than almost anybody else in the world. This paranoia is especially intense during wartime or shortly after it.

Federal education policy is also driven by the need of the Federal government to intercede when the states do a lousy or shameful job. That was the case with segregated schools and with schools with disabilities.

The Federal government is not the best place to drive education policy. For example, it has long been US government policy that parochial schools shouldn’t get any government funding, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has found that it is in fact constitutional.

Yet, because the country is mostly Protestant (that mostly is changing), the Protestants didn’t want to fund Catholic schools, despite the fact that Catholics de facto have to fund public schools that they don’t attend.

I get a special kick out of Protestants who demand that there be prayer in school but then demand that no federal money should go to Catholic schools.

But once again, I digress.

Catholic schools weren’t the point of the bills passed by Lamar Alexander and John Kline. Those two deserve tremendous credit for striking the right balance and making vital improvements in education policy in a world where intense partisan and crazy rumor-mongering is common and where common-sense is rare.

John Feehery publishes his Feehery Theory blog at http://www.thefeeherytheory.com/.

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