Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Local deliberation on the federal role in public education

As a scholar interested in the meanings that public still might have for education and schools, I’ve been intrigued with the potential of deliberative forums to help develop individual understanding, dialogue across diversity, and shared decision-making. As a member of the League of Women Voters here in Oxford, Ohio, I have access to a good organizational structure for fostering political deliberations. Our local League will deliberate this fall on the prickly questions surrounding the proper role for the federal government in K-12 education.

The national League of Women Voters (LWV) this year announced a new national study on the role of the federal government in k-12 education. A local, state, or national League group can call for a study of any political or policy issue that is relevant to its members, and a study commits a League to undertaking a careful deliberative process that educates members and encourages them to come to consensus on the issue under study. While not every study ends in a consensus among members, the aim of these studies at the national level is to help national LWV advocate and lobby on behalf of policy positions that reflect the views of its membership. This Education Study is designed to help local League organizations give feedback to the national League so that it might take up a good position with regards to the upcoming re-authorization of No Child Left Behind and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

For those readers unfamiliar with U.S. schooling history and policy, the involvement of the federal government in public education is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before 1950 the federal government played almost no role at all in the administration, curriculum, funding, or assessment of public education. The launch of Sputnik compelled some national activity towards enriching science and math education to fuel the “space race.” Civil rights and equity movements led to the development of greater federal regulation, mandates, and funding for particular populations in the 1960s-1980s (for example, students who are poor or who have disabilities). And in the last decades, a push for a more national standards/assessment system has gained much ground, due in part to the U.S.’s waning eminence as an economic and educational super-power, and in part to help pressure schools to erase the pervasive achievement gaps between white and non-white populations (which, schools by themselves cannot possibly do). No Child Left Behind is obviously the prime example of this effort. At this point, education is still mainly the responsibility of state governments and federal money usually does not represent more than 10% or so of any district’s budget. It is politically unlikely that the federal government will play a larger role in funding schools in the future. Still, there is much discussion that our school systems are too entrenched in their parochial, localized history, and that our country’s educational achievements are bogged down by this decentralized structure, and in the “bureaucracy” of federal regulations in the realm of equity.

The U.S. League of Women Voters wants regular citizens to be more involved in these important debates. That’s why they are encouraging local Leagues like mine to host deliberations around these questions.

According to the national LWV, our local study should help our members take positions on two broad areas: common core standards and assessments, and federal funding for equity issues. With regards to common core standards, our League members will become educated on the history of decentralized schooling in the U.S., the recent movements towards national standards, and the degree to which common standards should become those which are federally mandated or incentivized, as well as monitored through a set of national assessment measures. With regards to equity, our League study participants will look at the history and forms of federal involvement for equity goals.

There are many ways to deliberate, and consensus among members may not always be the goal of a deliberation. But whatever the goal and format of deliberation, such programs help to both educate voters and begin discussions among diverse voters on complex issues that are often reductively treated in the media. And there are increasingly more organizations like LWV that can be conduits for deliberation activity in communities. I like LWV because it provides a non-partisan space for people to learn and think through political issues, and become involved for particular policies or stances.

Deliberation is important, but it is also important to remember that it is one among many kinds of political tools in a democracy. Deliberation isn’t activism, lobbying, or policy-making. There are many different kinds of political activities, and it is important to understand what each sort of activity does and does not accomplish. Deliberation can help citizens understand and take positions on complicated issues like the federal role in K-12 education. It cannot, however, substitute for advocacy and activism on behalf of positions. The strength of the deliberations in Oxford, Ohio will be funneled to the national League, who will hopefully articulate a strong and persuasive position as law-makers engage in the sausage-making working of revising NCLB/ESEA in the coming year.

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