Government and Education

What is the government’s role in education? A recent post at AssortedStuff got me thinking about this question by critiquing a comment from Arnold Schwarzenegger about prescribing curriculum, then adding his own critique on mandated testing.

I decided I didn’t know enough about government’s role in education and felt like doing some research, so I pulled out one of the texts from my MAEd program: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education. I began my research, however, with our nation’s most important document: the U.S. Constitution. On the topic of education, the Constitution is notably silent. It does not guarantee any right to an education, nor does it specifically imply that government has any role in education. Of course, this does not mean that the founding fathers didn’t value education – Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both actively involved in establishing schools with broader, liberal arts focuses.

If the constitution didn’t say anything, however, at what point does the government become involved in education issues? According to the US Department of Education’s website, “Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation” (US Dept. of Education). Then how does the federal government become involved in school affairs?

With the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the government mandated that states and cities were required to set land aside for education purposes. As quoted in Article III of the Northwest Ordinance (which incidentally follows guidelines on the freedom of religious worship and the right of habeus corpus), “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Breaking, for a moment, from the quotes, I can’t help but look at that last statement. I can’t help but notice the last word: encouraged. Because there is nothing in the Constitution regarding education, there is essentially no reason for government involvement. However, because it is so clearly an integral part of a successful nation and culture, the government likely decided it needed a say in education. Thus, instead of mandating or requiring anything, the government began to find ways to “encourage” education in certain directions.

So how does the government “encourage” the education system? A quick read through that same DoE page ought to give us a pretty good idea: “[The Department of Education] works hard to get a big bang for its taxpayer-provided bucks by targeting its funds where they can do the most good.” In addition, “The Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is a little under 9 percent…”

For an even better picture, look at the history of federal legislation regarding education: the Morrill Land Grant College Acts, which donated public land to establish colleges; the Smith-Hughes Act, which provided funds for teacher training; the GI Bill, which paid for veteran’s tuition; the NDEA, which launched big-time funding for education; the Elementary and Secondary Education act, which gave financial assistance to school districts; and of course, No Child Left Behind, which imposes conditions for federal funding of schools and districts.

So how does the government “encourage” education? By using money. Based on what I’ve read of NCLB, it does not by any means “mandate” that states, districts, and schools do anything. To say otherwise, I believe, would be incorrect. Instead, the federal government attaches requirements to federal funding for education. This means that, if a state so chooses, it can turn down federal funding and not have to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Of course, many will argue (and justifiably so) that this simply blackmails states into doing what the federal government wants, as no person or entity can simply turn down a tenth of its income – that would simply devastate the local education system.

Returning back to the question at hand, however: what is the government’s role in education? From what I can tell, the government’s role is like that of George Steinbrenner, the iconic owner of the New York Yankees. Steinbrenner is renowned for requiring certain things of his players – clean shaven, businesslike, and so on. However, Steinbrenner was the man who signed the checks, so players did it  – much like the states follow through on the requirements of NCLB and other federal legislation.

The question I pose to you: what’s so bad about NCLB? Why should the government not be involved in trying to improve the national education system when education is generally accepted as a national issue (for evidence of this, just talk to John McCain or Barack Obama)? What changes would you like to see in federal education legislation?


2 responses to “Government and Education

  • snap22up

    This post seems a good start. It’s reflective, sets some broad outlines for discussion and begins to build a historical context for the state of the nation’s educational system today.

    And, I was surprised you didn’t give at least a passing nod to the debate about vouchers or the role of standardized testing in this. Is your final paragraph’s question rhetorical, though?

    I’ll be interested to see the articulation of the impact of NCLB on local districts, either through comments you get or follow-up posts.

    Still tuned in,

  • drpezz

    NCLB is completely punitive and mandates an specific level of improvement in every cell measured to label a school as successful. In my school of over 2100 students, we had one cell where 6 students not passing the state test put us on the charts as a “failing” school. This one cell has never met AYP, which means the entire school is punished for a very small percentage of its population.

    Plus, there is no national standard measure (i.e. test). States with more difficult state tests are assessed equally alongside states with very easy exams. Granted, the states could do themselves a favor by using an easier test, but that does not help the students (using low standards).

    These types of problems, among others, bother me about NCLB without even mentioning the loss of some state control over their education programs.

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