I shared the following ideas as a comment this evening to Cindy Seibel’s post “U.S. and Scotland have one – should Canada follow suit?” In her post, Cindy asserts in the United States “education is a federal responsibility.”

Whoa, hold on a minute there! I think you have some misconceptions.

Education in the United States IS a state responsibility. Providing a public education for kids is NOT a power granted by the states to the federal government in our Constitution, therefore it is reserved for the states. The advent of NCLB with our thankfully outgoing President GW Bush has in many ways “nationalized” the focus on education and accountability, but the law actually provides states with wide latitude and flexibility for how to meet its mandates. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a VOCAL opponent of high stakes testing. (Many of my views closely coincide with those of Dr. David Berliner on this subject.) I absolutely believe it is the wrong path forward. That said, however, it is important to recognize that we do NOT have a national curriculum in the United States, and education is NOT a federal responsibility. The US federal government does provide a lot of money for schools through its Title programs, but those dollars are small compared to the amount of state funding which schools receive.

Those clarifications aside, I think your question is a really important one. To what degree should we centralize control and management of the educational system in the hands of the federal government?

I’m inclined to say we should NOT do this. The founders of our nation were reluctant to grant power to the federal government, and ever since the central government has been taking more and more power for itself. I definitely support educational reform and change, but I don’t think this can or should come in a top-down format. We do need strong leadership for education at the top, but I think we need to continue to permit state leadership to determine the educational course. Here in the US, much like Canada I think, we are a very diverse society. A single, homogenous “prescription” for education is NOT what we need. There is great danger in centralizing authority for ANYTHING, and this includes education. I support the continuation of state responsibility for the provision of education for students.

That said, I do not necessarily think the local funding mechanisms which we have in place for education in the U.S. should necessarily be maintained. We do NOT have equitable funding for our schools, in large part because most states draw the lion’s share of funding for schools from property taxes. To see how this plays out in my home state of Oklahoma, just compare the schools in Deer Creek and Edmond to some of them in Oklahoma City. I support initiatives which are going to look at foundational issues of economics in our schools, and pursue options of making high quality education available for ALL students regardless of where they live. Equitable education CANNOT be provided (and is not provided, in my view) by an educational system which is funded by a fundamentally inequitable formula.

I have not finished reading the entire report, but I think a re-evaluation of school finance is one of the primary recommendations of the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

What do you think? If you comment here, please also comment over on Cindy’s original post.

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One Response to Federal or State Responsibility for Education and Inequitable Education Funding Formulas

  1. Cindy Seibel says:

    Thanks Wesley for clarifying for me, and I should have taken time to better understand. It’s a fascinating conundrum that although it is not a federal responsibility there is a Secretary of Education and that serveral funding mechanisms (albeit not the majority of funding as you point out) are tied to national standards. We have no comparable federal position in Canada, and in fact the federal government is very careful to not constitutionally step on the province’s toes.
    The historical development of educational responsibility in our two countries followed very different paths that parallel our constitutional development.
    As for the centralization of control, I think it depends in part on the nature of the strategy and the balance of responsibilities between central and distributed decision-making regardless of how distributed that decision making may be.
    Control need not be total and if you are suggesting a split between central policy-making/funding and distributed implementation I would be inclined to agree.

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