BY DARREN CHANG
For 13 years of our lives, we spend seven hours a day and 180 days a year in schools. We’re not allowed to complain, either, since every state has compulsory education laws that require some sort of schooling until the age of 16. I was lucky enough to attend public school in a district where the Board of Education encountered little trouble in securing funding. Test scores were high and outcomes were generally good. Even parents who could afford to send their children to private school chose the local public high school because of its reputation and rating. But not all Americans identify with such a rosy image of public school and instead find a broken system mired with inequality and ineffectiveness.
About 90 percent of students are enrolled in one of the 98,200 public schools across the country that served over 50 million students last school year. The other 10 percent enroll in private elementary, middle, and high schools, which are still subject to some curricular and logistical regulation by local boards of education and state governing agencies. But what separates the United States from other countries with compulsory education is the lack of federal oversight. The Constitution does not guarantee a right to education, and only Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets a legal framework for educational rights in the United States.
Because of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment delegation of educational control, state and local governments hold the primary responsibility for public education in the United States. The first Department of Education (DoE) was designed to only collect information on public schools across the country. In its current iteration, the Cabinet-level DoE provides about 10 percent of funding to state education systems through grants from taxpayer dollars, coordinates Federal programs while complementing state and local efforts, and aims to strengthen the Federal commitment to equality of opportunity.
The Federal Government, and specifically the Executive Branch, garners the authority to supervise education through the Constitution’s Article II provisions for international relations and the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal rights. Education is an important element for international relations not only because of the international law requirement of the UDHR, but also because a well-educated population maintains and increases the United States’ competitiveness. Education boosts global competitiveness and occurs in two main ways: economic growth and technological innovation. Higher educational quality builds a stronger economy by increasing the human capital available in a society, leading to higher labor productivity. The additional effect of increasing innovation through fostering new inventions and processes adds to economic growth and ensures national security. A pipeline of newfound technologies like drones and updated missiles helps our military maintain its dominance.
Another key reason for education lies at the heart of our government: democracy. Thomas Jefferson first upheld the necessity for an educated citizenry, writing in a personal letter that a public trusted with electing its leaders must be well-educated. Later, public school reformers such as Horace Mann and John Dewey followed suit, capitalizing on the ability of education to equalize conditions and train citizens to fully apply their talents for society’s benefit. Although indicators of civic participation such as voter turnout are currently low, basic and equal education builds a deliberative democracy that increases representation and informed voting. As the Washington Post’s subtitle subtly explains, “Democracy dies in Darkness.”
The “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment provides students the right of equal access to education. Historically, the equal protection clause was crucial for integrating public schools after the Jim Crow Era. For instance, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine, and subsequent cases, including Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), applied a stringent requirement for desegregation. The Federal Government’s role in following the 14th Amendment is relatively clear-cut: the Executive Branch, including the DoE, must enforce equal access to public education and execute the Supreme Court’s decisions on the matter. Yet, even six decades after Brown v. Board, education remains highly unequal. A 2018 forthcoming study from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis investigates the geographic inequality from a data set of 200 million standardized tests, concluding that correlates of race, socioeconomic status, and school characteristics still play an outsize role in determining achievement.
The United States has many improvements to make in both educational equality and educational competitiveness. Educational outcomes are still deeply tied to race, class and disability, starting from differences in early childhood education—richer children can afford daycare and preschool, while poorer children are more likely to stay at home with extended family. Disadvantaged children score two grades behind their classmates, according to a study from the University of Michigan. School districts just miles apart can spend thousands more per student, based on funding allocation.
Compared to leaders in education such as Finland and Singapore, the United States scores poorly on international tests. No matter how researchers spin the data, American students belong squarely in the middle of the pack on the Program for International Student Assessment—15th in reading, 37th in math, and 19th in science. The responsibility for ensuring proper and equitable education falls to the U.S. Department of Education and specifically Secretary Betsy DeVos, but little is being done to rectify the situation.
The most obvious problem at the federal level is an abdication of responsibility to public school students. President Trump has made it incredibly clear that education is not his priority, even threatening to eliminate the Department of Education and combine it with the Department of Labor. The FY 2018 budget cut over $9 billion with large-scale effects on federal appropriations for early childhood education and elementary schools, and the FY 2019 budget proposal reduces the DoE’s funds by another 11 percent. Crucially, the 2019 budget slashes $2.3 billion from the Supporting Effective Instruction state grants for teacher training and $1.2 billion from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that pays for after-school and summer enrichment opportunities. Instead, President Trump wants to re-allocate this funding to school choice programs that have increased support for charter schools.
The nomination and subsequent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education reinforces the irresponsibility of President Trump when it comes to education. In light of the hullabaloo over her confirmation hearing, the President’s and Vice President’s support of such an unqualified and unpopular nominee signals a commitment to increased elitist interests in education. As a public servant, Secretary DeVos should be responsible for increasing educational outcomes in public schools, but her experience only deals with private schools. She has demonstrated “a sketchy understanding” of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, an unwillingness to defend equal accountability for public schools, and a scary detachment from the reality of federal financial aid for higher education.
Thus far, both the President and Secretary of Education have focused on increasing school choice through building charter schools and paying for private school vouchers. Charter schools receive public funding but are privately run; the schools typically enjoy less regulation from the government, having developed their own curriculum and certification policies. Although charter schools may better serve gifted and talented students while allowing parents freedom over their child’s educational trajectory based on lackluster public school ratings, the results are mixed. Non-profit charter schools seem to do better than for-profit ones, and new charter schools tend to perform poorly.
The problem isn’t necessarily with the charter school model; rather, organizations like the NAACP and Network for Public Education worry that charter schools replicate inequality and steal funding from already cash-strapped public schools. Many charter schools are de facto segregated by race: 70 percent of black charter school students attend a charter school with nearly all black students. In addition, more charter school students are expelled than public school students, especially those in minority neighborhoods.
Vouchers for private schools signal the loss of faith in public education among the nation’s elite. Once upon a time, public education was the nation’s pride and joy. A public high school diploma provided a stepping stone to success, and public schools made many gains in equality and educational quality. Now, the elite are afforded their choice of schools, and Secretary DeVos wants to extend that privilege to low-income students. In principle, this sounds like a wonderful idea; in practice, many students can only afford cheaper private schools with the voucher, limiting the effect.
Vouchers aren’t available for every student, and even in states where eligibility requirements are lax, only some students take the vouchers, leaving the rest of the disadvantaged students to continue in already disadvantaged public schools. Moreover, a slew of studies cited by Mark Dynarski at the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution conclude that private school vouchers result in worse outcomes, based on math and reading test scores. The current federal commitment to choice-based education at best provides mixed improvements while at worst replicates past inequalities.
Yet, the states are doing no better. Federalism has only increased inefficiency and an inability to provide equitable education. States are cutting education funding left and right, and with no federal money to fill in the gaps, public schools suffer even further. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed by President George W. Bush in 2001, pushed for standards-based reform and federal accountability through Title I grant earmarking. States were required to test students in the third through eighth grades in math and reading each year and demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” for each school.
But, the NCLB was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which keeps intact the commitment to testing while granting any accountability checks back to state governments. For example, the Federal Government can no longer tie funding to adoption of Common Core standards. States rarely have fulfilled accountability requirements without federal supervision (see voting rights). The decreased federal power and increased power for state and local boards of education only transfer more choice and responsibility to parents and families, according to Cornell Law School Professor Michael Heise in the Columbia Law Review. Such action threatens student attendance in public schools along with curricular equality.
Federalism in education isn’t hopeless, however. After the 2008 Recession, President Obama and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan adopted the Race to the Top Program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States essentially competed with each other to adopt data-driven evaluation processes, including performance-based evaluation for teachers and better assessment for student outcomes. After the program’s expiration in 2015, both the Center for American Progress and EducationNext concluded that the “competition” had, by and large, increased public education quality. Of course, problems still arose with the Race to the Top policy: states that “won” the competition gained far larger benefits than states that “lost,” and Race to the Top still promoted charter schools at the expense of public schools.
The problems of the educational system today are striking, and solutions aren’t easily found, especially considering this administration’s crass treatment of education. But the responsibility to provide equitable education cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of states that already lack resources. The Federal Government should decrease its focus on school choice to instead properly fund public schools nationwide. Private school vouchers and charter schools should be more responsive to taxpayers’ concerns over outcome and be more transparent. Importantly, schools should be funded with the worst-performing public schools in mind. We know our country’s federalist model for education can work, but without a strong, federal guiding arm, educational (e)quality collapses, and democracy dies in darkness.
Darren Chang is an undergraduate student at Cornell University, where he participates in intercollegiate policy debate and devours large quantities of ice cream. Academically, he is interested by the intersection of different cultural perspectives, especially Asian American and disability scholarship. You can also catch him reading memoirs and autobiographies, playing ping pong, and laughing at memes of his home state of Indiana.