The Big, Bad Roommate: Why the Department of Education is Overreaching its Powers

by Rainiel Guzmán

On average, federal spending accounts for 10 percent of public school funding.  Yet somehow the U.S. Department of Education continues to dominate policy.                 

Imagine the following scenario: two roommates agree to rent an apartment.  One roommate is named Local and the other State. They cosign the lease agreement and make regular rent payments on time. However, unforeseen fees, inflation and other miscellaneous costs burden their monthly budget. They start to fall behind on their rent payments and are unsuccessful in obtaining modifications on their lease. Desperate they try to cut back from other expenditures yet are unable to cover their deficit. As a last resort they agree to find a third roommate, but whom?

One night Federal, a large, opinionated and manipulative guy knocks on their apartment door.  Local and State answer the door. Federal introduces himself and asks if he could come in to talk about possibly rooming with them. They agree and invite him in. They begin to converse and eventually arrive upon matters of money. Local and State propose that everyone pay a third of the rent. Federal informs them that he is unable to afford that percentage. Local and State are surprised by his statement then ask, “What percentage can you afford to pay?”

“About ten percent,” he answers. Local and State are insulted but find themselves in such dire straits that they entertain Federal’s insane proposition with the hope that he would later change his mind. However, Federal stands firm on his offer. Local and State become angry. Nonetheless they agree to Federal’s terms. This is when things get surreal. Federal proceeds to share some terms and conditions he would like everyone to meet. Federal begins by voicing his concerns about Local and State’s financial mismanagement. He proposes to oversee the payment of bills—to make sure that no bills are left behind. “We need to be more accountable in order to prevent these situations from ever happening again,” he asserts. Local and State begrudgingly agree again. Additional terms and conditions follow.

This account may seem too fantastic to resemble any plausible reality. Nonetheless, this story serves as an allegory of current K-12 public education funding formulae.  Nationwide, local and state governments account on average for 83 percent of K-12 funding. The federal government contributes roughly 10 percent. Private sources account for the remaining contributions. Given this imbalance of funding, one may ask, How can the federal government dominate K-12 public education policy?

The answer is that the federal government is overreaching its powers. The Constitution of the United States enumerates under the Tenth Amendment that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

This is why in matters of public education the responsibility for K-12 school policy rests with the states as outlined in the Constitution. The reality we face today is a funding formula unaligned with proportional powers. Would you share an apartment with such a roommate? You probably would not. I certainly would not. Others are expressing their growing reluctance as well.

Discontent over the federal government’s increasing Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements under the No Child Left behind law has pitted several state superintendents—such as Montana’s Denise Juneau—against Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education.  In near open rebellion, Juneau announced her decision to forgo raising Montana’s scheduled annual AYP objectives. Undeterred by the threat of losing federal funds and counting on Congress’ prolonged inaction to rewrite NCLB, Juneau reiterated her stated intentions. The Department of Education’s response was swift—Secretary Duncan backed-off and announced he would unilaterally override provisions of NCLB and “grant” waivers to states seeking redress.

Despite the announcement of waivers Juneau nearly pulled out of NCLB altogether in August. In an earlier letter addressed to Secretary Duncan dated April 25th, 2011, Juneau wrote “In the absence of a new bill, the Department continues to hold states and schools accountable under the current law although the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] accountability system does not conform to the Department’s new priorities, particularly around growth models for student learning. The split in priorities, established under your leadership and those established in the current ESEA has Montana reeling from additional data collection and uncertain about the path to continuous improvement.”

Ms. Juneau, a Native American and Democrat, along with other state superintendents such as Idaho’s Tom Luna, a Hispanic and Republican, and South Dakota’s Melody Schopp, a veteran classroom teacher and a nonpartisan, represent an interesting challenge to detractors of politicians who appeal to states’ rights as a constitutional imperative. These superintendents who seek to assert the Tenth Amendment defy the moniker of rabid racist secessionists often associated with reactionary rural politicians.

In fear of being evicted from the “Montana Apartment,” the Department of Education found a clause in NCLB allowing Montana to waive the increment of AYP for 2012 free of penalty.  Montana, along with a growing number of states, is asserting its authority over K-12 public education. The Department of Education is reluctantly acquiescing.

Conversely, the Department continues to manipulate the reform conversation through its swollen purse. It continues to pursue prominence in the implementation of education policies with programs such as Race to the Top.  As expected, the “granting” of waivers has been accompanied by additional terms and conditions which, surprise-surprise, accentuate the leading role of the federal government.  

Old habits die hard—if ever.

The moral of this story is this: Be weary of a cheap, bossy, Johnny-come-lately knocking on your door in the middle of the night.  He might turn out to be the worst roommate you will ever have.   

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

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3 Comments

Filed under Arne Duncan

3 responses to “The Big, Bad Roommate: Why the Department of Education is Overreaching its Powers

  1. This is an incredibly informative piece. It’s refreshing to learn that there are some state leaders willing to stand up to Washington D.C.’s absentee leadership.

    As a result of the feds reduction of educational funding, this notion of overreaching trickles down to the state and local level as well. The effect is the state informs the local that they must cover the lost revenue by raising property taxes, thus perpetuating the imbalance of funding. And then finally, at the local level when taxes are raised, and certain community members (many of whom don’t even send their children to the local public schools) who are already overly burdened on account of high tax delinquency, especially in urban areas such as Philadelphia, suffer the most. Education is one of the most poorly fiscally run institutions in America, plain and simple.

    The difference though, as your piece points out, is that the fed seems to have the greatest sway over daily policy in the neighborhood classrooms. As much as I want to join you in pointing the finger at our Big Brother, or pretentious roommate, I can’t help but look inward first at the two other roommates, the apathetic state and local, who continue to allow themselves to endure these inequities.

    I can only hope more state and local leaders follow Montana’s Denise Juneau’s lead and finally start exposing these multi-layered failures.

  2. Randy

    I’m studying the discourse on the abolition of the DoED as a Ph.D. student in education research and policy analysis. This post gives me a completely different perspective on the relationship between the DoED and state/local education. So, thank you for that.

    Just to be clear, I know you said nothing about abolishing the DoED, but that’s what I was looking for when I found this post. Your views are much more rational than what I find most anywhere else. In fact, your views are probably among the *most* rational that I’ve read online.

    • Rainiel Guzman

      Hello Randy,
      Sorry for the belated response. Firstly, thank you for your kind words. Regarding abolishing the Do ED, I wish, but the temptation of a government-corporate (fascist) monopoly is too large a force to discount. Please keep in mind that the Do ED has been in existence a mere 32 years. Far from venerable, it behaves more akin to a spoiled 15 year old. The only insight I could impress on you as you write your dissertation is to keep present that the Do ED is unelected and yet sways generational policy powers…
      Best,
      Rainiel Guzman

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