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Post-Election Principles for a New Federal Role in Education

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November 15, 2010 09:11 pm

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Obama_ClassroomThe 2010 midterm elections have left commentators scrambling to figure out what will happen in federal policy over the next two years. Obviously, a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a reduced Democratic majority in the Senate will alter priorities and change the agenda. The budget deficit will limit the appetite for new initiatives. And on many issues, gridlock will rule the day.

Education, though, might be one area on which the two parties come to common ground. Although a few candidates in this year’s election called for drastic reductions in the federal role in education, including eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, those voices were in the minority, and many of the candidates with the most extreme positions lost on November 2. The federal role remains secure, but it will change.

In a chapter in the fall 2010 issue of New Directions in Youth Development, Gov. Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and I lay out some principles for a redesigned federal role in education. We believe Republicans and Democrats alike can coalesce around these principles.

First, we point out that, while there has been a steady stream of education reforms over the past forty years, there is now a greater urgency for reform that sets the stage for a new era. That’s because much more is known about the severity of the dropout problem in schools, and about the consequences of this problem, both for the students who leave school and for their communities. And there is a greater recognition that the U.S.’s international standing in education is slipping. Next month, a new report from the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD) is likely to show once again that students in other industrialized nations outperform American students in literacy and mathematics.

However, Congress and the Obama Administration are unlikely to respond to this sense of urgency by creating a massive new federal program. Resources are limited, there is much more skepticism about government programs, and there is a larger knowledge base about what works. Thus the new federal role can—and should be—based on the following principles:

  • Clear goals and flexible procedures. Rather than prescribing remedies for states and local districts to adopt, the federal government should specify the goals—ensuring that all students graduate from high school college- and career-ready—and  let states and districts determine the best approach for meeting that goal and be held accountable for results.
  • Dollars tied to reforms. Although schools serving disadvantaged students need additional resources, money alone does not produce results. Instead, funds would be tied to assurances that states and districts are creating the kinds of changes that produce results.
  • Educational triage. Addressing the needs of the six million youths in middle and high school who are at risk of dropping out of school should be the nation’s highest priority. We know which schools need the most attention: About 2,000 high schools produce about half the nation’s dropouts. These schools need immediate attention and resources.
  • A return on investment to taxpayers. Because of limited resources, advocates for federal action need to show that their ideas will pay off in results. Reducing the dropout rate is one practice that does produce a significant return on federal investment. If the students who had dropped out of the class of 2009 had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefitted from $335 billion in additional tax revenue.

The window for action is closing, because the 2012 election will make legislation more difficult to enact. But every day of delay yields another seven thousand children who drop out of school, and another day in which schools and communities are without the tools they need to turn the situation around. Congress and the Obama Administration need to act quickly to create a new federal role in education.

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High School Dropout Rates

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