Education: A Federal Responsibility?

What is the role of the federal government in public
education?  Whether it be the
stick/carrot arrangement promoted through NCLB, a calmer, gentler collaboration
offered through EdSec Duncan and his plans for ESEA, or the drumbeats for the
outright elimination of the U.S. Department of Education we’ve heard since the
creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979, it is a question
that is asked many a time, with little room for an answer we all agree to be
correct and answered completely.

The question was asked again yesterday of many of the
candidates for the Republican nomination for President of these here United
States at a NYC forum sponsored by News Corp. and the College Board.  And the responses represented the good (well,
ok, the mediocre), the bad, and the downright ugly.  The New York Post has the story here, while the Hechinger Report offers up its coverage here

After calling for the elimination of ED during his rise to
Speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich was actually the strongest
proponent for a federal role in public education.  Now an education reformer, Gingrich embraced
the need to favor “the most rapid possible learning by the widest number of
Americans.”  But it goes downhill from

No surprise that former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), who
homeschools his brood, lashed out against public education in general and
testing and accountability in particular. 
And certainly no surprise that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) seeks to
end a federal role entirely, wanting to bypass the state, and hand over control of
public education directly to parents.

But what was truly surprising was the vitriol that Herman Cain,
former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and a man who is leading or close to leading
many a GOP presidential poll, had for student loans and the federal
government’s social compact with regard to postsecondary education.

“I do not believe that it is the responsibility of the
federal government to help fund a college education,” the New York Post
(another product of News Corp.) quotes Cain as saying. 

Really?  The federal
government has no responsibility, financial or otherwise, to support
postsecondary education?  We have no
responsibility, through the GI Bill, to the men and women who serve in our
Armed Forces?  We have no responsibility
to first-generation college seekers through Pell Grants?  With everything we’ve seen in the banking
industry in recent years, we have no responsibility to offer student loan
guarantees to students in financial need?

As a nation, we have declared that postsecondary education
is necessary for life success.  No longer
is a high school diploma sufficient to achieve in a 21st century
economy.  Whether it be career/technical
programs, community college, or four-year university, postsecondary education
is quickly becoming a non-negotiable when it comes to the path to potential

So how can we say that the federal government has no
responsibility in providing that non-negotiable?  Setting aside the Santorums and the Bachmanns
of the world, most rational people recognize that the federal government has
some responsibility in K-12, even if it is just ensuring equity through Title I
funding, supporting students in need through IDEA, or just feeding our students
through USDA-supported lunch programs. 
We are now seeing a move toward early childhood education, with the feds
looking to extend the front end of the education continuum to a P-12

When we factor in the economic factors, is there really any
question that there is a federal responsibility for a P-16 continuum?  At a time when the federal government should
be looking for real return on investment when it comes to our tax dollars, are
we really going to stand up and say that there is no ROI for postsecondary

If we expect our economy to grow and thrive, we need to
support investments that ensure we are educating today’s kids for the jobs and
opportunities of tomorrow.  A strong back
will soon no longer be enough to earn a good living.  We need strong minds as well.  And that demands postsecondary education

Sorry, Mr. Cain.  On
this exam, you clearly earn an F.  While
we can explore what the federal responsibility is in education, one cannot say
there is no role.  Your answer is
incorrect.  You did not show your
work.  And you really need to go back and


The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges

There is little question that higher education is a worthwhile investment.  We regularly hear about the earning power of that college degree, and how those with a college education out-earn those with just a high school diploma by up to a million dollars over a lifetime.  And we can’t miss the regular drumbeat of how some form of postsecondary education is necessary in our 21st century economy, and that just a high school diploma will no longer cut it in our knowledge economy.

We also realize that college is an expensive endeavor.  With some private colleges charging more than $50,000 a year and too many students needing five or six years to complete an undergraduate degree, that worthwhile investment doesn’t necessarily come cheap.  It is no wonder that more and more are turning to community colleges as a a cost-effective path to higher education, whether it be to secure an associate’s degree as a path to a job or to earn a year or two of lower-cost credits before transferring to a four-year institution.  And in some states, we are even seeing community colleges beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees.
In all of this, we often don’t think of the cost of drop-outs in our community colleges.  We worry about those high school drop-out factories, and the third of students who fail to earn a high school diploma.  We fret about the growing number of students who fail to earn their bachelor’s degree, hoping their is a sheepskin effect and that even a year or three of college is of benefit, both intellectually and economically.  But what about community college?
A new study from the American Institutes for Research’s Mark Schneider offers a
startling picture of community college drop-outs, The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges.
  Using data collected by the U.S. Department of Education and submitted by our institutions of higher education themselves, Schneider finds:
* Nearly $4 billion was spent by federal, state, and local governments over the last five years on first-year community college students who did not return for a second year of college.
* In 2008-09 (the last year of available data), nearly $1 billion was spent by government on first-year community college students who did not return for year two.  That is 35 percent higher than it was just five years earlier.
* About a fifth of full-time community college students do not return for their second years of college.
Of course, we also realize that these “drop out” numbers are imprecise.  Using federal IPEDS data is tricky business.  It is the best, worst, and only source of such higher education data.  So while we know when a student does not return for a second year at his or her selected community college, we don’t know where they went.  Did they transfer to another school?  Did they join the military?  Did they depart on missionary work?  Or did they just drop out?
Regardless, the data is still startling.  Why?  Tax dollars — particularly at the state and local level — are in short supply.  We are asking our educational institutions to do more and more with fewer resources.  And we face changing demands and increased requirements in the process.
That community college drop-out cost reflects $3 billion in state and locally appropriated money — read taxpayer dollars — that fails to deliver maximum return on investment.  It includes $240 million in direct grants from the state to the student, another investment that falls short.  And it includes $660 million in federal aid to students, at a time when Pell Grants are under direct assault.
And the costs don’t include the dollars spent by families and students for that first year of community college.  Nor does it include those students who are, or rather were, part-time community college students.  Nor does it include direct federal support or capital investments in those institutions, two other taxpayer-funded supports for the community college experience.
What is the grand takeaway from all of this?  Put simply, we need greater focus on our outcomes.  With taxpayer dollars at a premium and postsecondary degrees almost a non-negotiable in today’s economy, we need to be doing anything and everything to keep kids in school and increase the number earning their degrees.  
If we are serious about honoring President Obama’s promise that the United States will have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, we must first focus on those who are already in the higher ed pipeline.  What do we do about the 20 percent of first-year community college students who never return for year two?  And how do we better spend that $1 billion a year in taxpayer funds to accomplish it?
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has advised AIR and Dr. Schneider over the years.)

Ed Reform Power Rests with the States

Now that the dust has settled and we’ve been able to take the weekend to reflect on the lessons learned from last week’s U.S. Senate mark-up of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, what are the major takeaways and lessons learned?

That is the big question asked by the National Journal on its Education Experts Blog.  Check out my full post here.  For those looking for a little taste …
We will continue to look to our nation’s capital for bold rhetoric on education reform and for targeted funding for pilot efforts and the incubation of new ideas. But last week’s hearings (as well as much of the last decade) has made clear that real reform needs to come from state capitols, not from Washington, DC. States (and by extension, localities) are the captains of our educational fates.  

As always, the National Journal Blog is worth checking out, and the posts will just keep coming.

The Perfect, The Good, or The Unacceptable?

All week, we have seen the kabuki theater that is the Senate HELP Committee debate the latest version of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  From Sen. Harkin (IA) negotiating against himself by weakening teacher accountability provisions before the markup even began to the reams of amendments intended by Sen. Paul (KY) to Sen. Sanders (VT) intending to place scarlet letters on the chests of any educator who didn’t experience four or six years of a traditional education school experience, it was theater to say the least.

This week, Eduflack debuts over at the National Journal’s Education Experts Blog.  The topic?  Harkin’s ESEA draft.  Check out my thoughts on how this is no longer a “perfect being the enemy of the good” deal, particularly when the proposed accountability provisions serve as a significant step back.

ESEA: It’s Finally Here (sorta)

The day has finally come.  This afternoon, Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) officially unveiled his draft of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The bill offers the sexy title “Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011.”

The highlights: Adequate Yearly Progress is history.  Race to the Top and i3 are woven into the tapestry of ESEA.  HQT is gone, replaced by a plan to better evaluate teachers.  
Alyson Klein over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 has a great summary of the bill and why we were offered what was released today.
Even in advance of the release, civil rights organizations expressed concern about the ESEA draft, worried that the death of AYP provides the potential for turning back recent accountability measures and expanding some already dreadful achievement gaps.  You can see the full letter sent by six civil rights orgs today to Senator Harkin here.  That drumbeat is likely only going to get louder as the language is further sliced and diced.
One big question remains — Is it necessary?  At this stage of the game, NCLB is known mostly for its testing provisions, and most of those remain in the draft.  Replacing AYP with another tool and funding RttT and i3 on an annual basis are steps the EdSec can take, with or without a new ESEA (as long as he has a congressional checkbook to support the latter).  And we won’t even raise the issue of how this fits with House Education Chairman John Kline (MN)’s piecemeal approach to reauth.
So while this finally puts a flag in the edu-ground for Harkin and Senate Democrats, no one should be rushing to schedule a bill signing any time soon.  And if we truly want to get it on the calendar now, there are probably some lovely openings in the spring of 2013 just waiting to be booked.  That sounds about right for an ESEA reauth signing.
But we have to start somewhere, don’t we?

A Great Public School for All Children

For the past four and a half years, Eduflack has written about education reform.  What is working.  What is not.  How successful are we communicating our efforts to improve our public schools.  For the most part, I’ve done so from the cheap seats, observing from the sidelines, watching through the eyes of an observer, a consultant, or an advisor.

This morning, ConnCAN (the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now) formally announced me as its new CEO.  This is a tremendously exciting opportunity.  For years now, I have seen ConnCAN as the gold standard in state-based education advocacy organizations.  From its school report cards to its reports to its community engagement and advocacy, ConnCAN has demonstrated a clear path for how a state (and a nation) can provide a great public school for all children.
More importantly, ConnCAN isn’t shy about tackling the tough issues.  Many organizations in the education sector often struggle with the question of whether it is better to lose big or win small.  Over the years, ConnCAN has been able to win big on issues that matter to real families and real communities.  And its “no fear” attitude allows it to advocate for bigger and more significant agendas each and every year, priorities that can directly impact our communities and our economies.
Through recent efforts, the organization has made clear that the status quo in public education simply cannot stand.  If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, improving opportunities, and providing a great public education to all students, we must take bold steps.  Tinkering around the edges will not cut it.  Real change demands real action.  And that means implementing a school funding formula that addresses the needs of today and tomorrow, not the expectations of the past.  It means a great focus on teacher quality, where every student — regardless of race, socio-economic status, or zip code — has educators who are effective and supported.  And it means a community that is united in its vision to improve the quality of public education for all, recognizing there are NO excuses for achievement and instructional gaps.
I am incredibly fortunate to be working with such a terrific team, each and every one committed to bringing real change and real improvement to our public schools.  I am incredibly fortunate to work with a board equally committed to such improvement.  And I am honored to be working with a network of advocates, friends, partners, teachers, parents, and policymakers all dedicated to improving our schools and charting new, more effective paths to lasting school improvement. 
As the son of educators, I was raised to believe that there was nothing more important than a good education.  Through organizations like ConnCAN, we can clearly see how fixing our schools is possible and the social, economic, and community benefits that come from such a commitment.