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