Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.
When Arne Duncan became education secretary in 2009, the nation’s high school dropout problem was on his mind. Hundreds of thousands of young people were leaving school without a diploma every year, all but eliminating their chances of getting a decent job. Many were low-income and minority children who had been packed into “dropout factories” that graduated less than half their students. The national high school graduation rate was about 75 percent and hadn’t improved in decades.
And while there were many causes of that failure, including inadequate funding, poor curricula and challenging family environments, high school graduation rates were stagnant in significant part because many state education departments were systematically lying about the true extent of the problem. Instead of using a common-sense definition of “graduation rate” — the percentage of high school freshmen who earn a diploma on time — states were using statistical legerdemain to concoct graduation rates of 90 percent or above.
Fortunately, Duncan’s predecessor in the George W. Bush administration, Margaret Spellings, had used the authority granted to her by Congress to establish a single national definition of high school graduation rates that didn’t sweep dropouts under the rug. The rule was finalized a few weeks before Barack Obama was elected president and was embraced by Duncan once he took office. No longer able to pretend there was no problem, states and districts tried to improve. Now, after a great deal of hard work by students and educators nationwide, the national graduation rate is above 80 percent — the highest it has ever been.
Yet instead of seeing this as a success story to be replicated, lawmakers in Congress are on the verge of preventing future secretaries of education from taking similar action. And pressure to make a deal and aid Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid could push Obama to let them have their way.
Congressional negotiators are currently working to forge a compromise between new House and Senate versions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), last revised in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act. While media attention has focused on hot-button issues such as the Common Core State Standards, a potentially sweeping set of changes to the education secretary’s authority has gone largely unnoticed.
During the implementation of No Child Left Behind, some states tried to evade the legally required hard work of identifying and fixing chronically low-performing schools. The Education Department pushed back by threatening to withhold federal funds until states complied with the law. Under the Senate version of the new ESEA, the department would have an impossibly short 90 days to review 50 state plans and a very limited ability to require revisions, after which all plans would be automatically approved.
The new version of ESEA would also prohibit the Education Department from “specifying, defining, or prescribing” and “mandating, directing, or controlling” anything related to educational standards, tests, benchmarks, targets, goals, measuring student growth, fixing low-performing schools or evaluating teachers. In other words, anything related to education that actually matters.
There is, to be sure, a necessary balance among federal, state and local control over education. K-12 schools have traditionally been financed and governed locally, with states providing oversight and additional funding. The Education Department didn’t become an independent Cabinet-level agency until 1979, and the secretary’s authority is relatively new. Nobody is contemplating a national school board or a system where local decisions about hiring teachers and adopting lesson plans have to be run through bureaucrats in Washington.
But it’s important to remember that local control over public education was historically used to segregate African American students and provide far more money to rich school districts than to poor ones. The persistent achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their more privileged peers that have long plagued public education were a product of local control. There is no reason to believe that a return to that arrangement will produce better results.
At this point, Obama has not indicated that he will veto a new education law if it guts the powers of future secretaries of education. From a purely political standpoint, there may be a temptation to add a new education act to his administration’s list of legacy achievements. It would also, perhaps not coincidentally, take the issue off the table during the upcoming presidential election, relieving Clinton from having to answer tough questions about her close relationship with teachers unions, which support the radical diminishment of the Education Department powers.
But that would betray a bedrock principle that has guided Obama and Duncan for the past seven years: that the federal government has a bounded but vital responsibility to act on behalf of vulnerable children who are being systematically failed by public institutions and society at large. If Congress doesn’t restore the education secretary’s authority to help those students, Obama should veto the bill.