Congressional education report: 5 years and $700k to recommend "equity"

Congressional education report: 5 years and $700k to recommend "equity"

Summary: A lengthy effort to examine the state of education in American schools released their final report today. Apparently, we need equity in our schools.


I don't think the rant that's about to follow was exactly what US Congressman Mike Honda's (D-CA) office had in mind when they sent me the press release this morning about the education report he spearheaded. His communications director actually had the gall to be upbeat about it. Sorry, kudos coming from this blogger today.

First, a bit of background. Congressman Honda represents the California Congressional District that encompasses Silicon Valley. He spent 30 years as an educator and before I launch into the vitriol, I applaud his ongoing focus on education, civil rights, STEM, and the development of a 21st century economy. Good stuff, all of it. However, this report, meant to be inspiring and galvanizing, leaves me feeling even more jaded and pessimistic about the future of education in this country.

To be clear, the actual text of the report isn't available yet. It's being presented to Secretary of Education Duncan later today. However, the materials coming out of Congressman's Honda's office, including the forward to the report, do nothing to suggest that our government has any ability to affect real change in our educational system. Five years ago, Congressman Honda introduced legislation to form the Citizens' Commission on Educational Equity "to convene a commission to examine and propose solutions to the inequalities and present in the public education system". Oooh, good idea...let's form a commission to propose some solutions.

Apparently the vast array of really thoughtful, workable solutions flowing out of educators, businesses, analysts, and policymakers for the previous 30 years (and in earnest, focusing on 21st century learning for the previous 10) weren't good enough. One would have thought a few interns could have done a meta analysis of the existing body of work on this topic, but, gosh, a "Commission" just sounds so official. Yeah, we should definitely have another one of those. Not that it mattered since the legislation failed anyway.

Of course, it wasn't until the end of 2009 that Congressman Honda was able to form an advisory committee to "discuss the formation, direction, and charge of the commission that was to be formed". Because an advisory committee thinking about how a commission should work will definitely fix the mess that is public education in the US. In a brilliant example of how things get done in Congress, Congressman Honda managed to get funds appropriated for the Commission when he served on the (shocker!) House Appropriations Committee. Again, this isn't a criticism of Congressman Honda specifically. It's just one more indication of a broken system in Washington that certainly doesn't have the means or wherewithal to fix a broken educational system.

Ultimately, the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education funded the Commission to the tune of $200,000 in FY2011 and $500,000 in FY2012. Relatively speaking, this is loose change that can be found in the seat cushions of the House and Senate. When you're trillions of dollars in debt, less than three-quarters of million dollars isn't worth batting an eyelash, right? Mitt Romney paid well over twice that in taxes in 2011.

Then again, that meta analysis I mentioned earlier would have been free and probably would have come to the same conclusions. Before we get to the conclusions, though, let's see what $700,000 bought us, shall we? According to Congressman Honda's office, for the low, low price of $700k, we got

  • "Six town hall meetings across the nation to hear from students, parents, teachers, and local community members on their experience with the public education system"
  • "Six [Commission] meetings to hear expert testimonies and engage in discussion and deliberation around the issues"

Wow. Twelve whole meetings. And they talked to actual people in six of them! And experts in six more! Actual experts!

But wait, it gets better. 

Topics: Education, Government

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • A study of history and human nature

    will show you this is what governments do. And yet people continue to think government is the solution to all problems.
    • And what is your solution to this problem?

      Just so we know where you're coming from.
      John L. Ries
    • Die, straw man!

      I´ve yet to met anyone who thinks that "government" is the solution to all problems.
      What it does do, regardless of system, is lay down the boundaries within which all problems will be solved or not-solved.
      The framework of law, for instance, and its execution.
      The framework of infrastructure, health, schooling. Defence. Police. Fire protection. Rescue. Environmental protection. Law. Higher education ...
      In France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, etc, higher education is essentially free. Think what that means in terms of freedom, freedom to pursue your goals, realise your potential.
    • Education Reform

      Well said, there are definite problems with public education and I am not sure that we have solutions to these questions.
      joint the discussion
  • I do think that federal involvement in education needs to be cut back

    We need to have schools for the children of overseas military and foreign service personnel; and we should continue to offer training programs for prospective military officers and other federal employees that we may need, and it may even be worthwhile to offer funding for higher education and professional training in exchange for public service (to include agreements to practice a profession in an area where it is in short supply for a period of time), but I don't think we have much to show for the increased federal involvement in education over the last 40 years or so. The federal money (together with the attached strings) frankly muddies the waters, making it easier for federal, state, and local officials to point the finger at each other and say "he did it".

    Education has traditionally been under state jurisdiction with operational authority over primary and secondary education delegated to locally elected boards. This provides lots of opportunity to see what works and what doesn't and makes it easier for voters to determine which politicians should get the credit and which should get the blame (that and people have the opportunity to vote with their feet). The traditional system is nowhere near perfect, but federal efforts to fix it don't seem to be helping.
    John L. Ries
  • Desire to learn...

    We have diluted schools and what their purpose is. Enough with them being vehicles for social programs. Enough with egalitarian-minded dispensation of ability-based tracks. Enough with the political indoctrination coming from union-affiliated teachers.

    Back when schools simply taught subject matter, kids who wanted to learn, learned. They weren't there for socialist taxpayer-funded breakfasts and lunches. In our nation's history, we see examples of those who didn't even have much formal schooling, but acquired knowledge on their own, become world-famous scientists (Edison) and political leaders (Lincoln). Not every school need be equally funded per capita, in order for the kids to be "equal". It comes from desire to learn.

    We are trying to treat the symptoms, instead of addressing root problems (cultural and familial decay).
    • So what is your proposal?

      Be specific. For example, do you propose to do away with ability-based tracks so that students all get exactly the same instruction regardless of ability or interest (personally, I thought I was well served by the gifted program I was in, once I was allowed in)? Do you propose outlawing collective bargaining with teachers? Do you favor restrictions on how teachers present the curriculum and what opinions they're allowed to express in the classroom?

      Or would you prefer to scrap the whole system of public education and reserve formal education to those whose families can afford it?

      Regardless, consider the plusses and minuses, remembering that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch (not even anarcho-capitalism is free).
      John L. Ries
    • Quite a mouthful

      If you care about equality, as in "equal opportunity", the schooling must be free and open to all. And the care it provides must not vary too much from place to place. Furthermore, providing free, nourishing meals will make zero difference to many and a vast difference to a significant number of children.
      Given this, the next Edison gets a chance, even if he (or she, gasp!) is born in a less than privileged part of town.
      You can look at this from a utlity perspective - society needs highly educated people. Or you can look at it as an ethical question - equal opportunity, regardless of where you happen to be born. The latter will never be achieved, but let not that stop us from thinking in a principled manner.
      Opponents of state/federal solutions seem to think that there is something magical about "private" money. In my experience, there is equally as much silliness in the private sector. It just doesn´t get talked about quite so much.
      The big difference is that the public purse - in theory - is controlled by the people, which in theory, makes for a more democratic decision process, and more equal , or is that equitable, distribution of resources.
      The fact that this report was a waste of money does not prove that public funding of schools is "bad". That in turn depends what you want to achieve. If you are content to butter the path of the already privileged - effectively killing the american dream - then well-funded public schools are unnecessary. I would argue that that is again an ethical question.
  • An excelent piece, Chris!

    Of course, you are correct. Since the Department of Education has no teeth in order to enact changes in local school districts, and since the states are laying off teachers in droves, even if the report actually contained any meaningful analysis, nothing would come from it. States employ more teachers than they employ police, firemen, or any other public worker combined so, when money gets tight, teachers get laid off.

    To decide who gets laid off, states turns to seniority as their only guiding principle. In my small community alone, in two back-to-back budget cycles, award-winning teachers have been laid-off because they lacked seniority so that less-competent but longer-serving teachers would keep their jobs.

    No Child Left Behind has made matters worse. Schools have been left to act as social services for children living in poverty. School districts serving the poor become isolated and fair poorly when put up against schools which are predominantly upper-middle class in state-sponsored testing.

    Schools serving these kids end up under-funded, branded as "under-performing", and often lose their best teachers to school districts who can pay more based upon their being schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

    The fact that poverty has a much more profound affect on learning than any other single factor is ignored. Raise the quality of living for these kids and their ability to learn will become apparent. The schools cannot do that - but Congress can.
    M Wagner
    • Congress can reduce poverty?

      I think there are things Congress can do to help matters, but we've been trying at least sporadically since the 1960s and can safely say that the Congress' influence in this area is limited.
      John L. Ries
      • We Get What We Fight For

        It's interesting that when the politicians try to do something that is really unpopular, it gets stopped dead in its tracks. If we really want eduation quality and equality, we have to step up and fight for it. And education may be the most essential investment that we can make for our future. The government does good work and bad work, just like what happens in all organizations. Look around the place that you work and tell me there aren't many examples of gross mismanagement and wasted funds. If we both write our elected representatives and vote for those who place a premium on good education for all, we will get better eduction. And if we are luckey, we may even get what we ask for. I'm just tired of the government bashing which is a great excuse to not do anything. The government built the greatest road system in the world and NASA went to the moon. While creating a great educational system is probably a greater challenge, we and our goverment can do it if that's what we really want to get done.
        • That would be a good thing

          Just remember that we have a federal system and our state legislators and school board members need attention too (actually more so, as they get less coverage in the news).

          That which we can do should be done and it can be only beneficial for citizens to pay attention to what their politicians do in their name and to nudge them into doing the right thing whenever necessary.
          John L. Ries
  • And While I'm At It

    And while I appreciate Mr. Dawson's outrage about the mispent funds, I'd much rather see an article about how we really do go about creating a 21st centure educational system in this country. It's easy to take potshots and a lot harder to make proposals that others can take potshots at.