Disrupting education federalism.

Author:Robinson, Kimberly Jenkins
Position:II. A Theory for Disrupting Education Federalism through Conclusion: Toward a More Equitable Future, with footnotes, p. 983-1017

    Education federalism should be restructured to embrace greater federal leadership and responsibility for a national effort to provide equal access to an excellent education. This Part recommends the key elements for strengthening the federal role in education to accomplish this goal. It identifies new federal responsibilities that should be undertaken and recommends reforms of existing federal education policy that would facilitate this goal. Any substantial strengthening and reform of the federal role in education will transform the nature of education federalism because substantive changes to federal authority over education directly affect the scope of state and local authority over education. These shifts in education federalism have occurred throughout U.S. history, including federally mandated school desegregation, (146) NCLB, (147) and, most recently, waivers to NCLB. (148)

    In proposing the essential elements for a national effort to ensure equal access to an excellent education, I offer a broad theory to guide future reform by Congress, the executive branch, or both. The theory could be used to guide development of federal legislation, new initiatives by the

    Department of Education, or--most likely--a combination of the two. This theory is intentionally broad and does not propose a specific statute or federal initiative because a wide variety of federal statutes and initiatives could incorporate the elements identified here. Instead, this theory provides research and ideas that could inform a variety of federal reforms for many years to come. As Part III.B explains, I focus on future action by Congress and the executive branch, rather than doctrinal reform through the courts, because the legislative and executive branch enjoy numerous policymaking strengths over courts. (149)

    The following six policymaking areas identify how the federal government's role in education should be expanded to ensure equal access to an excellent education:

    (1) Prioritizing a national goal of ensuring all children have equal access to an excellent education and acknowledging that achieving this goal will require disrupting education federalism; (150)

    (2) Incentivizing development of common opportunity-to-learn standards that identify the education resources that states must provide; (151)

    (3) Focusing rigorous research and technical assistance on the most effective approaches to ensuring equal access to an excellent education; (152)

    (4) Distributing financial assistance with the goal of closing the opportunity and achievement gaps; (153)

    (5) Demanding continuous improvement from states to ensure equal access to an excellent education through federal oversight that utilizes a collaborative enforcement model; (154) and

    (6) Establishing the federal government as the final guarantor of equal access to an excellent education (155) by strengthening the relationship between federal influence and responsibility.

    As the analysis below will show, each of these elements either suggests how to leverage existing strengths of federal policymaking more effectively or fills in important gaps of federal policymaking and enforcement. (156)

    Federal education law and policy that encompasses these elements would greatly increase federal responsibility as part of a national effort to ensure equal access to an excellent education while setting the foundation for a shoulder-to-shoulder working relationship with the states to achieve this goal. In contrast to existing federal education policy that too often demands much from the states but gives them relatively little, (157) my proposed theory would strengthen the relationship between increasing federal demands for reform and greater federal responsibility for accomplishing those reforms. If federal education law and policymaking embraced each of these elements, collectively these reforms would place primary responsibility on the federal government for establishing a national framework for ensuring equal access to an excellent education.

    1. Prioritizing a National Goal of Ensuring Equal Access to an Excellent Education

      The federal government must identify a national goal of ensuring that all children are provided equal access to an excellent education. Some national leaders already have noted the importance of this goal. (158)

      However, some key points are missing from this rhetoric that must be emphasized to support the type of comprehensive reforms envisioned in this Article. For instance, the nation's top education leaders, including the President, the Secretary of Education, and members of Congress, would need to initiate a national conversation on why the United States should no longer tolerate longstanding disparities in educational opportunity and why federal action is needed to address them. (159)

      Federal and national education leaders also must make the case that the entire nation would benefit from ending inequitable disparities in education because research reveals that reforms to help those who are disadvantaged typically do not succeed unless they benefit more privileged Americans. (160) Therefore, the federal government must convince the more affluent segments of American society that a more equitable distribution of educational opportunity would inure to their benefit. This could be accomplished in part by publicizing existing research that quantifies the myriad of high costs that the United States pays for offering many schoolchildren a substandard education and that acknowledges that even many advantaged children are not competing effectively with their international peers. (161) Initiating such a conversation also requires the federal government to prioritize equal access to an excellent education among its national policymaking agenda.

      One way that federal leaders are beginning to identify concrete ways to close the opportunity gap is through President Obama's call to Congress, elected leaders, and business executives to make high-quality preschool education available for all children. (162) This call to close one element of the opportunity gap builds upon robust research that reveals that investing in preschool education yields substantial educational, societal, and financial benefits for the United States. (163) Although closing the prekindergarten gap represents an important component of closing the opportunity gap, it remains only one small element of this gap in the United States. A broad call and initiative for closing the full spectrum of the opportunity gap from early childhood education through high school is essential and overdue.

      Establishing equal access to an excellent education as a national priority would require federal leadership to explain that a reexamination of the nation's approach to education federalism is warranted. Leaders would explain how education federalism has served as a barrier to past reforms (164) and the reasons that restructuring education federalism must occur if the United States is ever going to ensure equal access to an excellent education. (165) This discussion should highlight federal willingness to shoulder greater responsibility for leading the national effort to achieve this goal while emphasizing that effective comprehensive reform must involve a shoulder-to-shoulder partnership among the federal, state, and local governments.

      Fortunately, the federal government has proven its ability to herald the importance of new educational goals and appropaches in the national interest. (166) Research and history confirm that agenda setting serves as one of the strengths of the federal government in education policymaking. (167) For instance, President Johnson successfully convinced Congress to advance equal educational opportunity for low-income schoolchildren through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 168 which includes Title I, and the Economic Opportunity Act, (169) which includes programs like Head Start and Upward Bound. (170) President Bush championed NCLB and its insistence on proficiency for all children in math and reading, public reporting of testing data disaggregated by subgroups, and a range of accountability interventions for failing schools. (171) Therefore, a federal call to implement a comprehensive plan to ensure equal access to an excellent education should build upon the lessons learned from these and other federal reforms.

    2. Incentivizing Development of Common Opportunity-to-Learn Standards

      A federal effort to ensure equal access to an excellent education should incentivize the states to develop common opportunity-to-learn standards. Opportunity-to-learn (OTL) represent one of the critical missing elements of the current education reform agenda. OTL standards would identify the in-school and out-of-school resources that students should receive in order to meet rigorous achievement standards. (172) The standards in most states are the common core standards, which were developed by a group of assessment specialists and academics in response to a request from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. (173) The standards are intended to provide a clear set of math and English language and literacy standards for kindergarten through twelfth grade that would prepare all public schoolchildren to complete their high school education and to be ready to enroll in college or participate in the workforce. (174) OTL standards are essential for ensuring equal access to an excellent education because, as leading education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, two decades of high standards and testing implementation has revealed that "there is plentiful evidence that--although standards and assessments have been useful in clarifying goals and focusing attention on achievement--tests alone have not improved schools or created educational opportunities without investments in curriculum, teaching, and school supports." (175) I...

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