Neal: Federal Influence in Education Outweighs Benefits

March 27, 2015

by ANDREA NEAL

After almost two years on the State Board of Education, I’ve reached a conclusion that shatters previous notions I had about federalism and local control of schools.

Hoosiers don’t determine education policy in Indiana. The federal government does. Whether through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) or its companion waiver program overseen by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, states have been stripped of their constitutional responsibility for operating schools.

Almost nothing that comes before the state board escapes the inevitable litmus test: Would the feds allow it? A far better question would be: What’s best for our children?

Case in point: The waiver-renewal application just filed by the Indiana Department of Education contains 470 pages of explanations and examples of ways in which Indiana will submit to federal mandates. The needs of children go unmentioned.

In exchange for obedience, Indiana gets $1.2 billion a year to apply to its education budget with flexibility in spending Title 1 funds in low-income schools. That’s about 10 percent of Indiana’s total education budget. According to one analysis, the money we receive from the feds may be just enough to cover the costs of complying with their mandates.

Dr. Maryann O. Keating, writing in the current issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review, notes, “Educational grants come with detailed federal directives, depriving state and local officials of the flexibility to address issues effectively and taxpayers’ ability to determine local priorities rather than those of federal regulators in Washington.”

State legislators are unwitting abettors. Every time they craft legislation designed to assert authority over schools, they throw in language to make sure the state won’t be sanctioned by the feds. In the end, they sabotage their own efforts to regain control.

Consider Senate Bill 91, the 2014 law that removed Indiana from the Common Core initiative, the movement to create uniform “college and career-ready” academic standards in all 50 states. Critics call Common Core a direct attack on state sovereignty over education.

The bill, in its final form, directed the state board to adopt new standards to replace Common Core as long as they “comply with federal standards to receive a flexibility waiver under 20 U.S.C. 7861, as in effect on Jan. 1, 2014.”

As a result, Indiana ended up with “new” academic standards that are at minimum 85 percent Common Core or Common Core paraphrased. The feds made clear they’d grant no waivers to states that didn’t have “college and career-ready” standards, assessments tied to those standards and teacher evaluations based significantly on test scores. The safest bet — as states quickly learned — was to adopt standards that looked a lot like Common Core. That was not the intent of SB 91.

It’s happening again during the current legislative session. Sen. Luke Kenley’s SB 566 would replace the ISTEP test, currently undergoing a costly redesign, with a cheaper off-the-shelf test such as the Iowa Assessments. The idea is to obtain data we need to compare our students to national and international peers at a fraction of the cost.

Somewhere along the way, the bill was amended to become a paean to the federal waiver process. “The state board shall ensure that applications for obtaining and renewing necessary flexibility waivers under Section 9401 of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended and reauthorized under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 … are timely filed,” says the bill’s latest rendition.

Many of my colleagues on the state board have publicly welcomed the federal role, which they say has forced states with subpar schools to improve or face severe penalties ranging from state takeover to closure.

Since passage of NCLB, Indiana can brag of modest improvements in test scores on the ISTEP and NAEP, but there’s no evidence that this has resulted from federal intervention. More likely it’s the result of “teaching to the test” — focusing instruction on math and reading in order to perform better on the tests that determine school-accountability grades.

Likewise, two national studies released in March 2015 theorize that small gains on student scores in the wake of Common Core are the result of changes in instructional methods keyed to testing formats. Both of the studies, by the Brookings Brown Center on Education Policy and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, say more analysis is needed.

One unintended consequence of all this federal meddling is the displacement of key stakeholders — parents, teachers, school administrators, even the State Board of Education — in decision-making.

It’s time to cut the federal strings that are literally tying our hands. Congress’s ability to oversee education has been completely discredited by the No Child Left Behind law, which created annual improvement goals deemed unreachable by all experts. Indiana lawmakers are fully capable of setting our own goals for Indiana schools, based on the ideas and evidence presented by Indiana parents, school leaders and teachers.

Andrea Neal, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a member of the State Board of Education and a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis.

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