Politicians need education reform schooling

We need an alternative to the federal vs. state clash over education policy.

Jacob Swede

After the DemocratsâÄô recent slam dunk on health care reform, President Barack Obama will have plenty of political capital to expend on legislative priorities, such as the overhaul of No Child Left Behind. In response to the Texas Board of EducationâÄôs decision to change social studies textbooks, the president has shifted federal focus toward education reform. The changes to the Texas curriculum bear an undeniably conservative slant, so itâÄôs no surprise to find Obama lacing up to go a few rounds with the Texas Board of Education. While historians strive to be apolitical, the Texas Board of EducationâÄôs proposed changes are fanatically conservative and sacrifice education on the altar of politics. The proposed changes would obfuscate of the division between church and state, including the substitution of Thomas Jefferson (who famously wrote of the âÄúwall of separation between church and stateâÄù) for Christian historical figures such as John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. The changes reinterpret recent history and exhume the corpse of McCarthyism to regale it in benevolent patriotism. ObamaâÄôs new No Child Left Behind means to replace the 2012 deadline on student math and science proficiency with a standard to make high school students âÄúcollege readyâÄù by 2020. The âÄúcollege readyâÄù requirement allows federal reformers to standardize social sciences, such as the history curriculum in Texas. This federal oversight is made especially powerful by the current fiscal situation, as states increasingly depend on federal money to maintain their schools. Thus, if ObamaâÄôs reforms include social studies, he could easily coerce the Texas board into restructuring its curriculum to meet federal standards or forego funding. But the problem is not isolated to Texas. The budget crisis has presented Minnesota with an education problem as well. The Minnesota State Legislature has been grappling with stagnating school quality amidst a freeze on state financial aid for schools. This has lead to budgetary reforms, such as optional levies on local residents (currently up to $200 per student) and increased borrowing from the federal government. Minnesota is waking up to the realization that the scope and quality of education may be diminished. The current Minnesota Legislature proposals reconcile these problems by making program funding standards more stringent and cutting programs such as QComp, MinnesotaâÄôs merit pay program for teachers. Doubtless, upcoming changes will be hard fought compromises between Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature, but they will reflect quibbling over dollars without sense. The budget crisis has dramatically reshaped the landscape of education in Minnesota, leaving open the possibility to drastically reform both the budgetary system and curricula. While it is important to scrutinize all programs in this financial atmosphere, the sacrifice of substance for funding is unacceptable; ObamaâÄôs reforms represent a move toward one-size-fits-all federal curricula, like a history curriculum that ignores regional context. The United States is a patchwork of history; each state is its own microcosm of historical development within the larger context of America. Hawaiian students ought to be knowledgeable about the U.S. annexation of Hawaii, and Floridian students should know about the Seminole Wars. âÄúCollege readyâÄù-based reforms to No Child Left Behind could allow the federal government to ignore this beautiful regional development and substitute it with the generic, simplified history of America. The creation of state-oriented curricula, especially in history, could be a perfect compromise between state and federal or partisan disagreements. For example, in Minnesota, crucial but undertaught history such as the Dakota Conflict, the achievement of statehood or the Duluth lynchings could supplant federal history in upper grades before it becomes redundant. But states canâÄôt go it alone. A 2005 National Center for Education Statistics study reports that approximately 8.5 percent of education funding is provided by the federal government. While that figure is far from ominous, in 2009 it represented nearly $1 million in expenditures for Minnesota alone. Minnesota and other states canâÄôt afford to forego federal funding to support their schools, nor should they have to. That federal reformers incentivize positive results and punish negative ones no doubt marks good intentions, but strong federal standards pose the real danger of creating unfunded mandates and a homogenous, relatively ahistorical history. The federal standards must be relaxed while the federal government bolsters state measurements for student and district growth. Education reform can be a twofold process; legislators must not only ensure that programs have adequate monetary support, but also make sure that the education those programs provide is pertinent to students. A Texas-style focus on the educational as opposed to the budgetary is commendable but surrenders history to politics; conversely, the federal creation of curricula for 50 diverse states isnâÄôt desirable either. Instead, we ought to combine state curricula to reflect regional knowledge while we institute flexible federal funding standards. Jacob Swede welcomes comments at [email protected]