The Federal Government in Your Arts Classroom

Originally posted in October 2020

With the 2020 election around the corner, it’s getting harder and harder to remember how the government is supposed to work. The dull churn of federal cogs and wheels seems like a different universe, maybe one that never existed. Everything is UNPRECEDENTED and SHOCKING and FIRST TIME EVER, and fatigue set in a long time ago. What’s he said now? What’s on fire? Ya know what, don’t even tell me. I know I can’t handle it today

When I set out to write this post, I thought I was going to be writing about how another 4 years of Trump wouldn’t make a big impact on what happens in classrooms. I just wanted, mostly for my own education, to set down what the federal government can and cannot do in public education, and reflect on what precedences have already been set. I wanted to reassure myself that, though devastating in other realms, a second term wouldn’t do too much damage in classrooms. But then I dug a little deeper… and then RBG passed away… and I started to see how the result of this election will be front and center in classrooms. 

I don’t know about you, but I did not receive any information on the laws surrounding education in either my undergraduate or graduate work, save for the state-mandated abuse seminars. It wasn’t until I was in the trenches that I heard the term “Title I” or even had any understanding of what an IEP was, let alone what any of that meant to me as a teacher or to my students. I cannot help but think that it was because we were music education majors and not general education majors. Was that not important information if you were “just” teaching “specials?” I suppose I’ll save that rant for another time, after the votes are counted… 

So if you were important enough to receive this information during your pre-service days or have a good handle on it now, feel free skim the following few paragraphs as I catch everyone (myself included) up to speed. Hold on tight, because we’re going through the last 65 years very quickly. 

HISTORY

Up until the 1950s, the federal government did almost nothing to the education system in America, by design. The 10th Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the States respectively.”(1) Translation: Issues of education belong to state governments. But in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education changed everything. You’ll remember that Brown v. Board of Education was the Supreme Court case that dismantled government-sanctioned segregation in schools. This ruling signaled the overturning of Plessy v. Furguson (1896), the case where “separate but equal” was made the law of the land. Both of these cases centered around interpreting the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th amendment:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”(2)

This ruling set off a chain reaction that exploded into a bonfire of unprecedented federal education reforms. By bringing an issue of equal protection of the laws into the public schools, Brown v. Board of Education opened the door for the federal government to get involved with education. Since then, this interpretation of the 14th Amendment has been used “to mandate equal access to education for students with disabilities; and, according to some arguments, to correct for persistently unequal access to resources across states and districts of different income levels.” (3) To put it simply, this allowed the government to do the liberal thing and get involved when help was needed. But as you can imagine, not all of this power was used responsibly. 

In the 1960s, America felt stupid compared to the rest of the world. Sputnik was happening! The Ruskies are beating us at science and math! And now that Pandora’s box had been opened and the federal government now had precedent to involve itself in public education, things started to change quickly. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. ESEA authorizes federal spending on K-12 education, and sets out the requirements schools must meet in order to receive this funding. This was part of a wave of sweeping federal programs in Johnson’s “War on Poverty” that included a massive expansion of welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. 

ESEA was renewed every 3 years until 1980, bringing about a flurry of new requirements and benchmarks for schools to achieve in order to receive that sweet, sweet federal funding. The most notable change from this era is now called IDEA, which “makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.” (4) ESEA is also where the term “Title 1” comes from. This refers to the additional funding that poorer schools receive in order to “catch up” to more affluent schools. Since public schools are primarily funded by local taxes, if a town or city has a small taxbase, they have less funding. Essentially, all federal funding for education is delivered through the Titles in ESEA and its reauthorizations since then. 

The 1970s saw a “back to basics” movement in education, wanting to undo the “softness” of schooling in the 1960s. Too much emphasis on the children’s emotional well-being, you see. In 1983, a panic swept the education world after the release of the “A Nation at Risk” report. This report essentially said that American public education was failing terribly compared to other nations. “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”(5) Most of the blame was heaped upon teachers– a school of thought that is often still present today. 

The 1990s and 2000s saw a rise in the emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability. School choice starts to come into play, as parents see traditional schools “failing.” In 2001, congress reauthorized ESEA and renamed it “No Child Left Behind.” This was a big step in federal oversight, and it directly affected curriculum and classroom priorities. “Under the NCLB law, states must test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school… schools are kept on track toward their goals through a mechanism known as “adequate yearly progress” or AYP.” (6) In a nutshell, tying standardized test scores to federal funding tightened the screws on teachers, curricula, and students. Because only certain subjects (math and language arts) are tested, anything other than those subjects started playing second fiddle… including learning how to play the fiddle (insert polite chuckle here). 

A quick note about Common Core: It is not a national curriculum, nor is it a part of the ESEA. Remember, the 10th amendment made that unconstitutional. However, the federal government was involved. The Common Core was created starting in 2009 by some state-level education leaders. Under Obama’s administration, since NCLB wasn’t working any miracles, states were given the option to opt-out of NCLB’s standards in favor of Common Core (or do-it-yourself, which wasn’t a popular option). 41 states have voluntarily adopted Common Core, most by 2015, when Obama signed Every Student Succeeds (or “ESSA”, which was that year’s reauthorization of ESEA). States and school districts have their own learning standards, policies, and priorities– and those are what most teachers deal with in their classrooms. Those standards may be adapted directly from the Common Core or they may not. 

TRUMP V BIDEN

So all of that is to say– whoever is the next president won’t be writing any curriculum. But, they could influence issues of equal protection, which might be even more important. This is particularly true in 2020, since the Supreme Court is in limbo due to the death of the Notorious RBG. It’s worth noting that the equal protection clause that allowed the federal government to be involved in public education is the same clause that RBG examined during her many gender equality cases. As of the final version of this blog, there are only 8 justices sitting on the court. 

Another 4 years of Trump plus an ultra-conservative supreme court could make some grave changes in education. He has mentioned he would get rid of the Department of Education entirely, likely putting hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work, destroying Title 1 funding for schools that need it most, and toppling federal grants for higher education. It’s unlikely to happen, but this does show his general disdain for public education. He would rather spend money on charter schools and vouchers. 

A conservative court would also do deep, long-lasting damage. Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned school-sponsored prayer, could be overturned. Gavin Grimm’s case (read here: https://www.aclu.org/cases/grimm-v-gloucester-county-school-board) (7) might be heard in the Supreme Court in Biden’s White House, but Trump’s administration has deferred this argument to the lower courts. Gavin’s case could mean big changes for transgender students. And although the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s attempt to cancel DACA, the court did conclude that DHS could cancel DACA, just not the way Trump went about it. So, Dreamers could be back on the line again. (8) And (if you’re prepared for an even more grim thought), if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that could mean an increase in unintended pregnancies, meaning more teens dropping out due to pregnancies, and more families struggling to support children they were not prepared to bring into their family… putting even more stress on families. 

What Trump cannot do is enact this silly “Patriotic Education” nonsense. This was another instance of Trump just saying something to distract from something else. As this NPR article plainly states: “The federal government does not have jurisdiction over school curriculum.” (9) Although his hypothetical second term could and would do some damage, rest assured that there are many, many ways that “Patriotic Education” would not be allowed to happen. 

Depending on how things shake out with the Supreme Court before the next inauguration day (no spoilers!), some of those above issues may not be solved with Biden in the Oval Office. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that Biden is married to an educator, and  we would likely see much greater support and care for the public education system, within the power of the federal government. His plan to support teachers includes tripling the federal money that Title 1 schools receive. I know it’s an old trope that Democrats like to just throw money at things, but studies have shown time and again that schools that spend more per student have better outcomes. Yes, this should be a state or local issue, but when there is such an egregious imbalance in school funding, this is where the federal government can flex its power– issues of inequity. A study published this summer shows the incredible differences in funding around the country, and how that directly impacts student outcomes. You can see clearly on the map here (https://tcf.org/content/report/closing-americas-education-funding/?session=1&agreed=1&agreed=1)(10) that it is the poor, red states that underfund public education, and it is the Black, indigeonus, and Latinx students who are being hurt the most. This is what Title 1 of ESEA was intended to counteract. Time to keep our promises. 

 I haven’t commented much on the impacts on the higher education system (not typically my wheelhouse), but you should know that Biden has a specific plan for making teacher training more accessible, with the explicit goal of improving teacher diversity.  There are so many incredible people who could have been teachers if they could have afforded the education and training, and this is worth the work to make that happen. Studies have shown that “exposure to at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 significantly reduced the probability of dropping out of high school among low-income black males by seven percentage points, or 39%.” (11) Not to mention the impact that it would have on white students, realizing that educated authority figures aren’t always white. All ships will rise.  

STATE AND LOCAL

As big and dramatic as all that sounds, if you want to make a positive influence for teachers and students, the real work happens at the state and local levels. Like most government agencies, what the state board of education does is rather boring. Reauthorizations, writing codes and policies, approving this and that. But sometimes, the state board of education (which is typically a volunteer committee of 10-15 elected officials, not necessarily with education backgrounds) is granted some superpowers. Here in New Jersey, the state took over control of Newark Public Schools, meaning the state board essentially replaced the local school board, and the schools were assigned a new superintendent selected by the governor. Newark is officially fully back to local control (after 25 years) since July 2020, though Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson are still under state control. This is a great overview of the benefits and damage that change in control has had on Newark. https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/07/its-official-state-returns-newark-schools-to-local-control-following-two-year-transition/ (12)

 Some state education boards approve textbooks, which is the case in Texas. You might remember some (warranted) hoopla surrounding Texas’s influence on textbook publishers: please the Texas state board, you are guaranteed to sell millions of textbooks. And that led to incredibly nasty things getting into textbooks used in Texas and beyond. One text used in Texas supported a “balanced” view of slavery, saying it “should not be oversimplified… Many [slaves] may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.” (13) And that happened only 2 years ago. All that is to say that state education boards can get away with some really egregious ideas, even though they are elected officials, because there aren’t a lot of people looking when they make these choices. Do you know who is on your state education board? Do you know how to access their meeting agendas, or when they meet? Time to visit Google. 

Local school boards are where the rubber meets the road. School boards hire the superintendent, make budget priorities, approve textbooks and curriculum materials, and otherwise get involved in more of the nitty-gritty of what happens in schools. It’s no surprise to most teachers that your school board has the biggest impact on what happens in your classroom. But I can almost guarantee that your school board is a mess right now with re-openings, virtual learning, teachers quitting left and right, and figuring out how to address civil unrest while friends and family die of a pandemic around them. Take the few minutes to Google who is running for your local school board, because your life may depend on it. Use this search engine to find your school board candidates easily. https://xqsuperschool.org/school-board-thing (14)

So, what do you want your vote to do?

Vote for a president who will support teachers, pre-service teachers, and students with equity (hint: that’s Biden). Pay attention to state school board elections; they will choose which textbooks your students see. And get involved with local school board elections and school budget votes; that can be the difference between fighting to teach and educating with freedom. 

Remember that voting is not a marriage, and you will not find your soulmate candidate. But make sure that when you fill out your ballot, you make informed decisions all the way through. Though it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a vast government bureaucracy to fund a child’s education. Choose your representatives wisely. 

REFERENCES

  1. U.S. Const. amend. X,§ 1.
  2. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.
  3. Pelsue, Brendan. “When It Comes to Education, the Federal Government Is in Charge of … Um, What?,” 2017. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/08/when-it-comes-education-federal-government-charge-um-what. 
  4.  U.S. Dept. of Education, “About IDEA.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2015. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/. 
  5. United States. National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk : the Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C. :The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.
  6. Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week, April 2, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/no-child-left-behind-overview-definition-summary.html. 
  7. ACLU. “Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/cases/grimm-v-gloucester-county-school-board. 
  8. Yekrangi & Associates.  “June 18th, 2020 Supreme Court DACA Decision – What Does It Mean?” Yekrangi & Associates, June 18, 2020. https://www.yeklaw.com/blog/2020/june/june-18th-2020-supreme-court-daca-decision-what-/. 
  9. Wise, Alana. “Trump Announces ‘Patriotic Education’ Commission, A Largely Political Move.” NPR. NPR, September 17, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/17/914127266/trump-announces-patriotic-education-commission-a-largely-political-move?utm_medium=social. 
  10. The Century Foundation. “Closing America’s Education Funding Gaps,” July 22, 2020. https://tcf.org/content/report/closing-americas-education-funding/?session=1. 
  11. Gershenson, Seth. “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers.” IZA Institute of Labor Economics, 2017. http://ftp.iza.org/dp10630.pdf. 
  12. Wall, Patrick. “It’s Official: State Returns Newark Schools to Local Control, Following Two-Year Transition.” NJ Spotlight News, July 2, 2020. https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/07/its-official-state-returns-newark-schools-to-local-control-following-two-year-transition/. 
  13. Timsit, Annabelle, and Annalisa Merelli. “For 10 Years, Students in Texas Have Used a Textbook That Says Not All Slaves Were Unhappy.” Quartz. Quartz, May 13, 2018. https://qz.com/1273998/for-10-years-students-from-texas-have-been-using-a-history-textbook-that-says-not-all-slaves-were-unhappy/. 
  14. XQ. “School Board Lookup.” XQ Institute, 2020. https://xqsuperschool.org/school-board-lookup. 

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