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Camins on the Federal Role: Should It Be Curtailed or Redirected?

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This is one of Arthur Camins’ best articles about education and its ills. He poses the question of whether there is too much federal meddling in education or whether the federal role has been corrupted by pursuing the wrong goals.


He argues on behalf of a vigorous federal policy in education by referring to other areas–like Social Security, Medicare, and civil rights laws– where the only “fix” was federal policy. The reason that so many are now disgusted with federal policy in education is that the Obama administration has pursued the wrong goals and alienated its allies. Its reckless promotion of high-stakes testing and privatization has actually undermined the appropriate goal of federal policy, which should be equity and justice. The so-called “reform” movement relies on federal power to impose unpopular and failed mandates, wielding power in a manner which is inherently undemocratic and even anti-democratic.


Camins writes:


The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach. It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers. For example, the nation has largely abandoned efforts to end segregation, arguably a prime driver of education inequity. The large-scale, community-building infrastructure and WPA and CCC employment efforts of the Great Depression have given way to the limited escape from poverty marketing pitch of education policy following the Great Recession. Whereas the 1960s War on Poverty targeted community resource issues, current education efforts target the behavior of individual teachers and pits parents against one in other in competition for admission to selected schools.


It cannot be repeated often enough: No country that has made significant improvement in its education system has done so through test-based accountability, teacher evaluation systems, charter schools or other school choice schemes. Improvements will only come from a national commitment to the values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility and by providing the funding for solutions based on those values.


Community and individualist values have been in tension throughout U.S. history. The diminishment of inequality that characterized the 1930s-1970s was the result of empathetic community responsibility values and strong unions. The growing inequality of the 1980s through the present is the result of the dominance of competitive individualist values. When inequity is the norm, policies that favor competition over collaboration turn potential allies into foes. When competition is the norm among parents for their children’s schools and among teachers for professional advancement, narrow individual solutions undermine broad systemic solutions.


The rhetoric to support current education reform is that individual poor families should have choices about which schools their children attend just like rich folks. Tellingly, this does not mean that rich and poor or black and white children attend the same schools. Instead, new charter schools are located in racially and economically isolated communities so that poor families compete with one another for admission. The result has been increased segregation with no effort to ameliorate resource allocation differences between wealthy and poor communities.


We do not need the federal government to specify teacher evaluation mechanisms, rank teacher preparation programs based on the test scores of their graduates students, fund privately operated charter schools or promote education entrepreneurs. The proper role for the federal government is to be the guarantor of justice and equity.


Unfortunately, given the Obama administration’s ties with the uber-wealthy philanthropists who believe in free-market competition, there is no hope that it will change direction. It will continue to push for the very policies that promote “competitive individualist values” and pay lip service to the “values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility.” We can only hope that the next administration changes course from the status quo. If not, the public will turn against the federal role altogether as the values of “justice and equity” are sacrificed and abandoned. And this will be the sad legacy of the Obama administration.

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