Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ESEA at 50: In the Mood to Take Risks

The fiftieth anniversary of the ESEA is coming up in April of 2015, and we’ll be hearing a lot about it – you know, “looking forward, looking back.”  Make no mistake, I adore history and historians of the federal role.   I like to kvetch about NCLB’s problems as much as the next College of Education faculty member.  But my intellectual commitments are increasingly to policy analysis aimed at the future tense, and I am looking for new collaborators to get me to think in creative ways about that.  

My colleague Professor Eric Houck, a school finance scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I wrote a paper for the Russell Sage Foundation’s gathering on ESEA at 50 in New York last week.   We are very interested in how Congress could build some incentives for states to re-vamp their state finance systems to make them more equitable into the ESEA. We argue that federal policy has swung toward adequacy since NCLB, and suggest that when we meld the concepts of adequacy from school finance and opportunity-to-learn from education policy together, there is a justification for incentivizing equity.  We propose a competitive grant program within ESEA to make awards to states willing to revamp their state finance systems, either through better weighting of formulae to support students with the greatest needs, or by asking states to increase their share of spending, thereby blunting somewhat the effects of the local property-tax base system.  Although the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2013 Report to the Secretary of Education called for a stronger federal role in that dimension, it never explained how it could be accomplished in policy.   

You might say it is impossible for the new Congress to care about equity, and that everyone is wedded to the current NCLB accountability model.   But let’s consider some political realities about the present and future Congresses: there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the NCLB model, and a lot of indications that Rep. Kline and Sen. Alexander favor deregulation for the next round of proposals.  In fact, it is probably “Deregulate or no deal.”  So I think progressives and centrists alike ought to ask how the current model of categorical programs (like Title I, Title II) could be restructured to support heightened accountability and targeting, more equitable state funding formulae, and expanded investment in early childhood, health, and other community supports.  (There are some fascinating forthcoming books about this; look for my spring blog.)

Eric and I heard a lot of very valid pushback about our ideas: there’s limited federal capacity within the Department to support such ambitious reforms; states won’t want to participate; you can never assess if you’ve ever truly provided equality of opportunity.  And those all deserve the best answers we can provide. My point is that if those of us in academia don’t start writing some policy proposals that are based on research – especially those of us past the point of promotion and tenure – there are plenty of think tank staffers who will readily jump in to fill the void (minus the research). I am willing to re-think some of my long-held suppositions about what the federal contract with states ought to look like, so long as civil rights are held sacrosanct.  I’m looking for a few venturesome friends to help me. 

PS – The paper is too drafty to post here now, but write me if you are interested, email me ( and I will send it once it’s further toward publication.  

by Elizabeth DeBray 

Elizabeth DeBray is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration& Policy in the College of Education, University of Georgia. She received her Ed.D. from Harvard University. Her research interests are the politics of federal education policy, policy implementation, and interest group politics.

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