Thoughts on Education Reform, Pt 2: Government Meddling in Education

In part one of this three part series, I wrote about athletics and academics. My point was not so much that we should eliminate athletics in schools as much as we should deemphasize them. I realize this causes a lot of problems for many people given how much of our national budget is spent on sporting activities yearly, monthly, daily. I have no problem with sports in their proper place. I just think that too many people get too excited about student athletes and not excited enough about student academics.

In this second part of the series, I will address the following issue: I believe that if we are going to make any advancement at all in education reform we desperately need to find a way to lessen, if not eliminate, government involvement in local education. Marc Bernstein wrote in June 2013:

Federal involvement in education has increased geometrically under President Obama as his Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan used 2009 anti-recession Congressionally-approved stimulus money to fund state and local school district grant programs that were focused upon student accountability through standardized testing and teacher evaluation based upon those student test results.

But he is also careful to note that government involvement (or meddling) has been on a steady increase since the 1980's. (Bernstein is writing specifically about school vouchers, but I think the point is all the same. Vouchers is just one manifestation of the disease of government meddling.) As he notes:

The upcoming battleground is the larger issue of education–what role should the federal government play versus the states. Historically, education has been a local matter; however, the federal government has found a persuasive way to become involved, namely, by offering large amounts of money to those states and school districts which implement federal initiatives. As always, money is a great motivator.

Money is a great motivator. And it is sad to say that educators have reached out, grabbed the shiney apple, and not thought for a minute about the consequences of doing so. 

I am a newcomer to the field of education as a professional (that is, someone who is paid to teach; I’m now in my 3rd year as a special educator) I have plenty of experience, however, as a parent of three sons, an educational aide (paraprofessional), and volunteer in the local school to speak on these matters. What I have observed is that the people involved in local schools are competent and well qualified to run a school. When they do not do their job to the satisfaction of the community they serve they are voted out of their position. In other words, local checks and balances do their job.

Now I am a paid professional and I see that it is much worse than I could have ever imagined. It is unbelievable the amount of regulations put upon teachers, administration, and schools in general by state and federal governments. I have a friend who sarcastically refers to this as ‘death by paperwork.’ Ask any teacher or principal involved in the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System and they will tell you there is too much government oversight of local issues. 

Diane Ravitch recently posted an extreme example of government interference: Should Arne Duncan Meddle in Local Issues? In concluding her post she wrote:

Somehow I got the impression when I worked at the US Department of Education that it was illegal for Cabinet members to get involved in local elections or appointments, but I must have been wrong. Let’s just say it was generally understood to be inappropriate.

If it is not illegal, it should be and I believe local educators ought to be duly concerned about such egregious abuses of authority and power. She notes in the post other instances of Duncan abusing his position of authority.  In a separate blog post, Ed Feulner says more or less the same thing:

The federal government also dominates in spheres of activity traditionally reserved to the states. This leaves little or no room for state-level innovation in areas such as education, transportation, health care, welfare and even law enforcement.

This is true and there you have it: two people, politically apples and oranges by comparison, agreeing on the same point: there is too much government meddling in state and local affairs.

So, step two: we need some sort of grassroots initiative to get the government out of our local schools, but I also understand there is a problem with my idea: the government controls the purse strings. And when Arne Duncan is dangling a $400 million apple in front of a state government, it is just too easy to acquiesce to the demands he makes. Thus, those in local schools are dependent upon the money that we send them (the government) in the first place. I hope there are others who see this problem.

1. We send money to the government (taxes) and anxiously await the redistribution of that money to causes they think matter.

2. But not without strings attached. The government controls that money and no amount of representation will change that fact.

3. The government makes all sorts of demands upon us, institutes new rules and regulations, and evaluation systems, assessments & ‘reforms’, and so on and so forth. 

[3.5 And still those of us in Special Education come out on the short end of things because no one will fund IDEA properly.]

4. We have to comply with their demands in order for the money we gave them to be redistributed to us so our schools can be properly run. Or Local receipt of money is dependent upon 'cooperation' with their 'ideas.'

5. If we refuse to comply, they will not give us back the money that is rightfully ours in the first place.

It is a ridiculous drama we (educators) are forced to play out every single day of our lives. We are to smile and nod our heads (or grab our ankles) in compliance. Those two words are the watchwords: control (or oversight) and compliance (or cooperation). But why do the people in Washington, D.C. or Columbus, Oh seem to think they know best what is involved in local education? Why do they think they know anything about education? I remember many people complaining about No Child Left Behind. My question was always: Why did Ted Kennedy have such a hand in writing it in the first place? What did he know about education and how to reform it? (Or Boehner or Miller or Gregg or even George W Bush for that matter?) Is it not possible that there are people who actually might know something about education who could provide us with better reforms? 

And I'm not even going to bother disecting the Race to the Top reforms which is a perfect example of compliance and control for dollars bit of legislation. But tell me why should we have to 'compete' for money that already belongs to us? Why should I have to cooperate with people whose ideas of education or education reform I utterly disagree with?

I spent about five minutes on Twitter on Sunday, January 5. In those five minutes I saw people complaining about everything under the sun as it relates to education: assessments, teacher evaluations, common core standards, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, student outcomes, who controls education, and so much more. I had to leave Twitter. My question is thus: why do we keep voting into office the very people who make all of these things possible? Why are we tolerating this abuse of power, this hording and lording of power?

Here I am simply complaining. By the time I get done doing all the paperwork, managing all the regulations, ensuring compliance with various rules, and strategically planning lessons to be in compliance with standards created by someone who does not know my students, suffering through a four year resident educator program, enduring countless disruptions for evaluation..well,  how much time do I have left to actually instruct my students in important matters? Multiply this amount by 5 for my principal and the director of services (and other administrative personnel.) 

What I think most educators want, at least it's what I want, is for the government to get out of my classroom and let me teach. What I think would be great is if the government, the ones who control the money we send them, woud spend some of that money actually asking educators what WE think would be some necessary reforms for education. But I don't think they will because they do not want to hear us tell them to get out of our way and let us teach. 

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