The Federal Government’s War on Local School Boards

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Federalism refers to a balance of power between a central government and the various states or provinces in a country, each component of government having powers and responsibilities of its own. Even though, as we all know, we have three levels of government in the USA — federal, state, and local, each with the power to tax and to make laws of its own — federalism in this country refers not to a balance between the federal government and local units (or local and state units) but only to a balance between the federal government and state governments. Constitutionally, local government is under state government. So, an increase in state control of something may mean a decrease in local control — whether or not federal control has seemingly decreased. And local taxpayers seem to have little control of that “something” — their own public schools — under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first authorized in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

Remarkably, the claim by Every Student Succeeds Act advocates such as Senator Lamar Alexander — that it gives back some authority to both state and local governments at the same time it reduces federal control of local schools — has not been recognized as the fraudulent claim it is. ESSA has not increased local control of any policies governing a local district’s public schools; nor has it increased the authority of a governor or state legislature, either. Instead, ESSA has puffed up the role of state departments of education (whose staff is mainly appointed) and, to a lesser extent, the (mostly appointed) boards of education typically in charge of them, with members who tend to follow the directives they have been given if they want to keep their seats.  State board members are usually not paid for the little they actually do; their main purpose today is not to ask questions but to approve the policies desired by the U.S. Department of Education. (That was the case under Arne Duncan and John King Jr., the education secretaries appointed by President Barack Obama, and it’s the case now under Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, who oversees many Duncan and King appointees embedded in the department.) That’s true even when federal education policies have demonstrably failed to produce “equal outcomes” across different student groups and seem, instead, to be widening the gaps.  Equal outcomes, moreover, was not the goal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, even though closing “gaps” is the explicit goal today of the more recent Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 52 years ago was the first major attempt by the federal government to improve the education of low-income (or low-achieving) children — at the time (1965) mainly black children and children on tribal reservations in the West or elsewhere. Its goal was to give them an opportunity to take advantage of a stronger public education system than the one that had served many other children over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether or not they had English-speaking parents. ESEA’s stated purpose, in 1965, was to “strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.”  

However, the appropriating of federal money, with or without strings attached, to improve the education of low-achieving children or their schools has not been effective, to judge by the nation’s so-called “Report Cards” (officially known as National Assessment of Educational Progress tests) since the 1970s.  In fact, federal money may have worsened their education, to judge by widening “gaps.”

Despite lack of empirical evidence that an infusion of federal money into state and urban school budgets improved the education or schools of low-income children, ESEA has been re-authorized over the years, and with increased appropriations in each successive version.  Puzzlingly, lack of research evidence has not stimulated rigorous research (funded by the federal government or the nation’s many foundations, for example) into why so little if any progress occurred and how federal money was actually used by the schools or departments of education that spent it.  Nor has lack of evidence of positive results from allocating more money for the education of low-achieving children reduced the range of compensatory or supplementary programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education for them.

Au contraire, it has led education policy makers to come up with ever-more-costly and damaging changes in educational practices to what is ultimately a non-educational problem — a problem that cannot be solved by the schools no matter how much money Congress or state legislatures vote to give local school districts in the name of equity or compensation for the low-income students they happen to enroll. Lack of positive results also led education policy makers to transform the purpose of the Every Student Succeeds Act from educational to social.

Transforming a reasonable educational goal (that is:  strengthening education for all) into a non-educational problem can be seen in the subtle but meaningful transformation of the purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In 2015, its purposes were:  “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” No one criticized the Every Student Succeeds Act on the grounds that its unknown writers (to this day we don’t know who wrote and paid for it) had changed the basic purpose of the original legislation in two key respects — ESEA was now aimed at providing fairness and equality in educational opportunity for “all” children and at closing “achievement gaps.” The goal was no longer strengthening the education of all children or all disadvantaged children. Nor did the Every Student Succeeds Act identify the groups with “gaps” between them.

It is clear to education school faculty that our education system (and perhaps education professors’ role in its effectiveness) is not the cause of low academic achievement. As an education school faculty member acknowledged in a 2014 paper she and her graduate students gave at a civil rights conference:  “… differences in achievement across different student populations represent influences beyond the purview of the education system.” The author recommends we “expand” the definition of equity in the policies and resources made available to the schools and other institutions, presumably until “equal outcomes” are achieved, although she doesn’t tell us when we might return to a non-expansive definition of equity.

What she and others of her persuasion (and they are legion) don’t tell us is what exactly the schools or other institutions should spend more money on or what policies we should put into place (in the name of expanding the definition of equity) that would lead to equal outcomes. After over 50 years of ESEA, and billions on education research, we still don’t know. Nor is it clear that a paucity of empirical clues matter. Apparently this researcher and her colleagues across the country can’t figure out exactly how to achieve “equal outcomes” across different student populations, whether or not there is evidence to support their ideas on a small scale. The only thing they seem to agree on is spending more money on a possibly unobtainable goal that local taxpayers have not voted on and instituting unspecified policies to try to achieve it. Nor can we find a discussion of why we should aim for “equal outcomes” across different student groups.

The national crisis in education in 2017 (increasing funds for education, widening “gaps,” and continuing decline in educational outcomes for all groups) is due in part to our lack of knowledge of what those policies and resources might be if achieving equal educational outcomes is a real goal. Is there any evidence that the federal government could do better than local governments in improving the education and well-being of low-income children? Has giving more money to the parents or the schools of low-achieving students or lowering academic standards in the name of equity or accessibility improved their academic record or social status?

There is nothing historical or empirical to support Every Student Succeeds Act’s changed goals. So, how can Congress require mostly appointed, state-paid staff at a state department of education to submit a four-year plan to the U.S. Department of Education to address these seemingly unobtainable federal goals? In turn, how can this state education department staff commit hundreds of locally elected school boards to these federal goals (in exchange for federal funds) without their permission and without the approval of a governor and a state legislature?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas.  Read her past columns here