During this election year, Hillary Clinton has offered few ideas to improve elementary and secondary schools. Donald Trump proposed an unrealistic plan to shift federal funds from educating children from low-income families and children with disabilities to instead fund charter schools which have at best a mixed record of success. During the presidential and vice-presidential debates there has been precious little said about improving and supporting the public schools.

Why is this?

During the last fifteen years, the reputation of the federal government in education has gone downhill. From the 1960’s, the government was seen as a strong advocate for greater equity and equal opportunity providing funding to achieve those goals. Today, educators view federal actions as unreasonably imposing penalties on schools for failing to raise student test scores to prescribed levels. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education strongly pressured states to adopt controversial policies expanding charter schools and measuring teacher effectiveness on the basis of student test scores.

In other words, for nearly fifty years, the federal government worked with educators to help students needing extra assistance to succeed in schools. More recently it overreached and became an enforcer of nationally prescribed policies. Both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Members of Congress participated in this excessive federal interference in the schools. They may have had the best of intentions, but their policies were wrong-headed.

Students needing better schools are the victims of this overreach. Their education is not receiving the proper attention from all levels of government because the states have been fighting the federal government, and local schools districts have soured on federal programs.

No wonder then that the candidates for president and other federal offices are not talking much about the federal government helping the public schools. This year the Congress gutted the federal role in elementary and secondary education and has not substituted another. States and local school districts are working on their own to fill the gap.

If the nation’s public schools need to improve as much as most of the politicians and the nation’s business leaders claim, then that immense task will only be successful if all the financial and other resources of government at the local, state and federal levels are coordinated to concentrate on that work. Our kids are paying for the overreach by the federal government, and I sadly see that it will be years before the harm caused by those misguided policies is repaired and a new federal role can be fashioned. This new role has to be one of cooperation with the states and local school districts and not one of working against them.

I wish the presidential candidates would at least begin that process by acknowledging mistakes at the federal level, and offering ideas of how to begin to build a more useful way for the entire country to work together for better schools. Our kids are being educated today, and they need all the help they can get.


This article written by Jack Jennings first appeared on his site on LinkedIn on October 7, 2016.  Mr. Jennings is also the author of Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, March 2015).