Duncan Poised to Intrude into Local Schools

Published June 11, 2012

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan likes to talk a lot about allowing local control and state flexibility, but his actions belie his talking points.

“Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students,” he said in February. His goal in issuing waivers of the largest and much-hated federal education law, No Child Left Behind, was to give “states, districts, and schools the flexibility they need,” he said last June.

But Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education repeatedly have taken actions contrary to those oft-repeated words. That’s why local school districts should beware the $400 million federal moneybag Duncan dangled in front of them May 23 in an extension of President Barack Obama’s prominent Race to the Top initiative.

RTTT is a $4.35 billion program Congress bundled into the 2009 stimulus. The administration has used it to reshape education policy in the United States by requiring states to make favored policy changes to get a portion of that money. That might sound like something that needs doing, and it is, but the Obama administration is going about it the wrong way and imposing bad policies.

The RTTT winnings are always a small fraction of states’ annual education budgets–New York’s grant, for example, constituted one-third of 1 percent of its education budget. Now Duncan wants to force states to let individual school districts compete for the feds to oversee how well they’re doing their jobs.

This is the deepest federal, big-government incursion yet into education, a field regarded and constitutionally set aside as state and local terrain. The federal government has long restrained its involvement to redistributing extra funds for poorer schools and disabled kids and enforcing federal laws regarding discrimination, and even those intrusions happened only in the past half-century. Never has the federal government directly overseen day-to-day responsibilities of local school districts (save Washington, DC, over which the Constitution gives Congress control).

In contrast to this common-sense approach, RTTT requires direct federal oversight of the “winners” to ensure they follow through on the plans they promise to implement in exchange for the money. This is exactly how the department has overseen state-level winners: reviewing finances, contracts, teacher evaluations, and more, and demanding changes when Duncan isn’t satisfied. This is also how the department has conducted itself towards states seeking NCLB waivers–insisting Massachusetts, for example, the state with the highest student test scores in the country, change how it determines which students need special help and how it ranks mid-range schools by test scores.

State winners must submit thousands of pages in reports on their progress each year. A New York administrator told the New York Times he “feels certain about one thing: ‘A considerable amount of time will be spent creating a significant amount of mandated paperwork'” to meet the DOE’s demands.

This is what local schools and districts have to look forward to if they win. Even trying it out is something sane administrators should loathe and taxpayers discourage.

For the first two rounds of RTTT, states spent thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants just crafting their applications, and they were understandably put out when many didn’t get a cent. Since then, every state that won funds has lagged on promised reforms.

Paperwork, millions in additional taxpayer dollars, scores of consultants, increased mandates, and rotten follow-through. That’s hardly a recipe for local control, administrator flexibility, and improvements that reach classrooms.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow in education at The Heartland Institute.