The Burden of Proof in Federal Education Policy

Are states entitled to federal education money? Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, seems to think so. His draft bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act would entitle states with $14.9 billion a year federal dollars in exchange for…not much.

For the last 50 years, since the first federal K-12 education dollars began flowing to states, states had to ensure federal money was being spent on poor students and that they weren’t using federal investments as a replacement for state or local funding. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, states have also had to measure and do something about student learning results.

Alexander would end this quid pro quo relationship. Instead of states having to comply with federal rules in order to get federal money, Alexander’s bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to prove states didn’t deserve federal money. Here’s the key provision:

The Secretary shall…deem a State plan as approved within 45 days of its submission unless the Secretary presents a body of substantial, high-quality education research that clearly demonstrates that the State’s plan does not meet the requirements of this section and is likely to be ineffective or is inappropriate for its intended purposes.

Not only would it have the U.S. Secretary of Education acting like a time-constrained prosecutor, but the bill is sprinkled with at least 16 50 other ways to limit federal oversight over federal money.

Alexander would argue he’s relying on transparency as his tool to hold states accountable. But even those provisions are weak. A transparency strategy relies on providing easy access to comparable information, but Alexander’s bill includes so many carve-outs and limitations that we’d likely get data that wasn’t comparable across schools or districts, let alone states.

Even more importantly, transparency alone isn’t sufficient as a tool to boost educational outcomes. Policymakers have relied on transparency over and over again as their preferred accountability lever, but information alone just doesn’t have the same effect as information plus action.

When Ronald Reagan was president, he was fond of saying “trust, but verify.” Today Lamar Alexander has dropped the “verify” part and seems content doling out $15 billion to states on “trust” alone.

2 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof in Federal Education Policy

  1. Nelson Smith

    Chad –Good piece, and an old quarrel. I was reminded of Bobby Kennedy’s early insistence on ESEA evaluation, which has some resonance here. (Thanks, Mr. Google.):

    ” During hearings on the law before its passage, Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY) had insisted that the ESEA include regular evaluations to ensure that federal aid was, in fact, producing measurable gains in student achievement, but this provision went frequently ignored. As Julie Roy Jeffrey has observed, federal officials were “hesitant to push for evaluations, realizing that these might show the act was not working and, thus, would provide the enemies of federal aid with political ammunition.” As early as 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy told colleagues that “I question whether anything is being accomplished in a major way [with Title I]. . . . I also seriously question whether the people in the ghettos feel anything is really being done.” The ESEA quickly sparked controversy between state and federal officials over which level of government was best equipped to control the law’s implementation.”

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