Over the last several months, there has been considerable debate surrounding the nomination and confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Questions have been raised about her knowledge of education, management experience, policy positions on issues such as school choice and willingness to build bi-partisan coalitions.
Close attention to this appointment is both appropriate and expected. According to an Associated Press/University of Chicago poll, education is a top domestic priority for Americans in 2017, trailing only health care, jobs and immigration. The public understands that the quality of our K-12 schools and colleges has a powerful impact on our economy and democracy, on our individual and our collective lives.
But as we scrutinize DeVos, we need to put her position and power into perspective. While the decisions she makes will certainly have an impact on our students, they will neither save nor destroy our public elementary and secondary schools.
Student learning depends on many factors. There are those who argue that out-of-school influences, such as income and family situation, are the prime determinants of classroom success. Courts and legislatures play significant roles in shaping our K-12 schools. And the sheer size of the system — 50 million students, 100,000 schools, 14,000 school districts, 3 million teachers, and $600 billion in expenditures — make it unwieldy and unresponsive.
But the major check on the secretary’s impact is the limited role in education given to the federal government.
The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution delegates the bulk of the decision-making power for our schools to the states and localities. The federal government’s own website reads: “Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation.”
And if the letter of the law is not enough, follow the money: The federal government provides only 10 percent of the funding for public K-12 public schools with the remaining 90 percent split between the states and localities.
This distribution of power is widely known. The 2016 Education Next poll tells us that more than 80 percent of the general public and teachers believe that local and state governments play the largest role in deciding whether schools are failing and where the solutions lie.
It is true that lines of responsibility have become more blurred in the last half century. The Cold War, civil rights movement and continued move to a knowledge-based economy have shifted the status of education from privilege and luxury to universal right and integral part of our national well-being, resulting in a federal government more involved in the bully pulpit, quest for quality consistency, creation of standards and measurement, and oversight of civil rights.
The new administration in Washington, like those that came before and those that follow, will put its stamp on education. That is part and parcel of a duly elected government. But in the case of our elementary and secondary schools, it is neither time for elation nor despair. For both those who support and those who oppose the new secretary, there will be many battles ahead.
— Gene Budig was the last president of baseball’s American League and a former chancellor/president of three major state universities, Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.