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Restoring a federal/state balance in education

Like politics, all education is ultimately local. What a rural Indiana high school needs is different from what an urban school in New Jersey requires. Over the past two decades, though, we have witnessed a shift from state to federal leadership in education policy. A once-narrower role for Washington — setting national policy goals, ensuring equity and protections for all students, and providing the financial incentives for states and localities to make needed improvements –- has evolved into the largest and broadest role in education the federal  government has ever played. It’s worth exploring what happened and what can be done to support states in assuming their Constitutionally-assigned responsibilities in education. 

A major factor in this shift has been a change in demographics and issue focus. Baby boomers, who long constituted the largest voting bloc, wanted good schools for their children and demanded that their elected officials deliver on their campaign promises of a best-in-class education system. Today, aging baby boomers are more consumed with health matters – for them and their elderly parents – and retirement security than they are with education. 

{mosads}A younger and more diverse population is focused on issues ranging from early childhood education and Common Core to student debt, jobs in their field of study and the economy overall. Whether on the right, the left, or squarely in the center, voters are looking to Capitol Hill and its new line-up of leaders on the House and Senate education committees to address what ails our education system. And for good reason. The 114th Congress is expected to tackle a number of big policy bills in 2015 including reauthorization of both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA). As an observer and participant in reform on the state level, this is an extraordinary opportunity for federal policymakers to encourage states to take action. 

Getting the policy right needs to begin with Congressional leaders empowering states to do what is right and necessary by their citizens. We know this is possible, because it is already happening. Case in point: improving access, increasing graduation rates and enhancing learning outcomes for students, particularly those in high-need communities, is already happening on the state level. For example, take Tennessee. The governor has made it possible for every high school graduate in the state to receive a free two-year college education. In addition, the state has dramatically improved standards and performance beginning in kindergarten and moving through senior year in high school. These reforms are the result of a coalition of state and local leaders, working across party and sector lines, who have refocused the state on college- and career-ready goals. Federal initiatives, such as the Race to the Top grant, provided Tennessee with such valuable catalysts as flexibility and funding. 

What is happening in the Volunteer State is not unique. Today, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is partnering with 28 universities across five states — Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio — to ensure a strong pipeline of excellent STEM teachers for tomorrow’s classrooms. The program in each state begins with a governor willing to take action and a statewide, bipartisan coalition to support it. Each state demands accountability from all parties, particularly university presidents and school district superintendents. And each state requires third-party, evidence-based assessment of its impact. 

Even without specific changes to HEA, each of these states is taking bold steps to redesign its teacher prep programs to meet the individual needs of its state, in particular, its high-need schools and communities. As the needs are urgent, these states are not standing idly by, waiting for the federal government to act. They are mobilizing on their own, within their communities, to make a difference. With a set of shared basic principles each state and its partner universities, specific needs are being identified, the best prospective educators are being recruited to fill those needs, and data is being collected to determine progress and success. The result? Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows will touch the lives of more than 1.5 million students over a 15-year teaching career. 

States are already doing much to strengthen education. Simply put, they need the encouragement, policy framework, and flexibility to explore new avenues that will work best for their schools, their students, and their communities. 

As the 114th Congress looks to chart the course for the next phase of our shared educational journey, policymakers in Washington must give states the tools they need and the right incentives to help them think outside the box, and then hold them accountable for results. 

Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.


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