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Feds may use education reforms to gain more control

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By James McCusker
Herald Columnist
Published:
It's not a new law, just a clarification of an old one, but as clarifications go, it could certainly be very interesting.
The U.S. Department of Education recently issued some guidance on the 1973 law that spells out the rights of disabled persons participating in, or seeking to participate in, activities in organizations that receive federal money.
The clarification by the feds was issued to school districts partly in response to a Government Accounting Office report concluding that disabled students lacked the access to sports and other student activities they have a right to under federal law. Another factor, though, was undoubtedly the increased number of lawsuits being filed by disabled students who wanted to participate in sports or other school activities.
Help in translating the law into practical policy was needed, certainly, but the language of the law and its clarification remains so broad and dreamy that the obligations of school districts are still somewhat vague. Some believe that it will do for the disabled what Title IX did for girl's and women's sports. Others believe that the costs involved will put an end to school sports entirely.
The issue of "equal access to school activities" will eventually be resolved but that is not the only issue at stake in public education.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan found that out when he addressed the National School Boards Association once again.
The listeners undoubtedly respected his willingness to appear before an audience that was, at best, unenthusiastic about the goals and programs he described. In the end, though, despite the secretary's efforts, there is no way to ignore the ongoing battle for command and control of American education. The federal government apparently wants a system where Washington, D.C., makes the decisions and schools implement them. There is no requirement for a "Yes, sir!" But it doesn't take much imagination to see that coming, too.
What school boards probably see in this, of course, is that they will be erased. They will have no real function in a top-down command structure, other than to take the blame for things that don't work.
The federal government's interest in controlling education is not new. Some aspects have been intensifying under the current administration but the seeds of this system of central control were planted years ago.
Professor Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University has a remarkably clear perspective on the shifting politics and policies of American education. His most recent book is "The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing Politics of School Reform" and it is an education in its own right.
He shared some of his insights with us recently, and said that "The fundamental landscape of our educational system is shifting along three major fault lines. The first is the increased role of federal and state governments. The second is the increased role of the private sector. And the third is the erosion of school-specific decision making and the reabsorption of education policy making into general politics and government.
"While dysfunctional schools are the immediate cause of takeovers by mayors, the increased role of government is a return, of sorts, to an educational model prevalent in the 1890s and early 20th century where schools in our major cities were overseen by mayors and councils much the same as police departments or departments of sanitation. Subsequent political reform movements, though, produced a public school system generally characterized by local control and independently elected school boards, often with their own revenue streams."
Why are we moving in this direction? Henig says that dissatisfaction with schools' performance creates a force for change, and that "reformers look to mayors and state governments because they are used to dealing with broader constituencies and are experienced in building coalitions to reach decisions -- techniques that school systems aren't generally familiar with."
At the federal executive level, of course, there is no such experience to count on. Presidents are familiar with broad constituencies and coalitions, but experience in campaign politics and congressional maneuvering is of little value in understanding local politics or improving school performance.
From an economics perspective shifts to federal control will eventually cause a problem. Most of our K-12 educational system funding still comes from real estate taxes on homeowners and other property holders in the community supporting the school system. While the cash flow would probably be attractive to the feds, separating control from the funding source would create an unbalanced system and much unhappiness.
Worse, we might end up with a federally funded public education system supported by federal taxes. That would resolve the economic imbalance, but there is no reason to believe that it would improve our schools, and that's what this is all about. Isn't it?
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.
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