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The Role of the Federal Government in Education

capitol buildingThroughout the markup of the Every Child Achieves Act and during the Senate floor debate, Chairman Alexander emphasized that the footprint of the federal government in education needed to be reduced and that most decisions were best left to the states and districts. “We’ve had a trend toward a national school board, and we need to reverse that trend and put responsibility back to states and local school districts,” Alexander said in a speech from the Senate floor.

It was through this lens that he and his colleagues opposed amendments supported by the National Council of Teachers of English. Defeated by a vote of 45-50 was Senator Jack Reed’s (D-RI) Amendment (SA #2161) on resource equity to require states to report on access to critical educational resources. Chairman Alexander suggested the change would represent inappropriate federal intervention in state and local decisions. Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) Amendment (SA #2093) to end discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation was defeated by a vote of 52-45. It required 60 votes to survive. Although Chairman Alexander admitted that bullying is “no doubt a terrible problem,” he believed it is best addressed at the state and local level.

Other defeated amendments offered this week included Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-ND) Amendment (SA #2171) to reinstate the grant program to integrate schools and mental health. It failed to reach 60 by two votes, with a vote of 58-39. Senator Alexander noted that there need not be a federal program to address every state and local educational need.

Admittedly, in recent years, the federal role in education has been considered by many to be burdensome and costly to the states and local districts. But, in some areas, particularly in the protection of children, the federal government has played a critical role where issues of equity were concerned.

In 1954, the Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, striking down desegregation in K–12 schools, declaring, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . . .” Three years later, in 1957, President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to accompany nine black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1962, federal US marshals and federalized National Guardsmen accompanied James Meredith to enroll in the University of Mississippi in the face of vehement opposition.

This is why many are disappointed by the lack of response from Senate leaders when it came to the Franken amendment. It was one NCTE supported because we have a history of taking a position on this kind of issue.

NCTE recognized that the majority of LGBT students feel unsafe in school in the 2007 Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Issues. It also created the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Academic Studies Advisory Committee to  “develop plans to assist teachers in making schools, colleges, and universities safe and welcoming places for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender nonconforming, intersex, queer, and questioning people . . . .”

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently released its report, State and School District Anti-Bullying Policies. After reviewing 13,181 US public school districts, they found that 70.5% of districts had anti-bullying policies. Only 42.6% enumerated protections for sexual orientation and a mere 14.1% for gender identity and expression. Franken’s amendment was introduced because federal civil rights statutes do not include sexual orientation and gender identity, and clearly, state policies often do not include them either. By failing to pass Senator Franken’s amendment, the Senate chose to leave the policies to the states, which history unfortunately suggests could leave these vulnerable students unprotected.

According to Senator Franken’s staff, S. 439, the Student Non-Discrimination Act is still alive and will possibly be considered in committee. Stay tuned.