Credit: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

It has been a jolting contrast, to say the least.

After insisting that it is not up to the federal government to lead the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has singled out the nation’s nearly 100,000 schools on which to try to impose a uniform federal policy.

In recent weeks the Trump administration has insisted that schools reopen in the fall for in-class instruction — not part-time, but all the time — in ways that would be clearly contrary not only to local and state recommendations, but federal guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which advises social distancing and wearing masks.

His position flies in the face of reality: whether schools open virtually or in-person is up to locally elected school boards who are part of a long tradition of local control.

By trying to push schools to have children in school, Trump and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are actually highlighting the limits of the federal government’s influence over schools.

That has been clearly illustrated in recent days by the decision by some of the nation’s largest districts — including the two largest, Los Angeles Unified and New York City Dept. of Education — to offer some or most of their classes via distance learning this fall.

They are joining a growing number of districts, especially in California, that are making the same calculation. With the pandemic now spreading at alarming rates in many states and regions, the notion of bringing children into classrooms without additional resources to create the needed safety regimens seems not only unwise, but irresponsible for many districts.

That has not stopped the Trump administration from continuing to press for children to be back in the classroom.

“Kids need to be in school. They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we can’t — we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that to be the intent of that happening,” DeVos told CNN’s Dana Bash over the weekend in a combative and revealing interview.

What about the CDC guidance recommending social distancing and the use of masks, Bash asked? Those, DeVos said, “are just guidelines … meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation.”

To give some teeth to their efforts, Trump and DeVos are both threatening to cut off federal funds if schools didn’t make sure every child was back at their desks this fall, five days a week, even though neither has the authority to do so.

What makes schools perhaps the least receptive target for a comprehensive federal strategy is that they are run by locally elected school boards — and have been for most of the nation’s history. That hasn’t stopped the federal government at various times attempting to leverage funds it gives to states and schools to implement Congressional mandates, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

Perhaps the best-known recent example was the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), signed by Pres. George W. Bush in 2002, which mandated testing in certain grades and imposed various sanctions if students in a school or district failed to meet federally imposed test score benchmarks.

But the NCLB was itself a failure on many levels, most clearly in terms of achieving its principal objective, which was to close achievement gaps between higher- and lower-achieving students groups.

Chastened by that experience, in 2015 Congress overwhelmingly approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which drastically dilutes what the federal government can tell states to do. As Derek Black wrote in the California Law Journal, “ESSA reverses the federal role in education and returns nearly full discretion to states.”

Led by former Gov. Jerry Brown, California also revolted against top-down federal education mandates when he championed a new accountability system — and went a step further by ceding more decision-making power to the state’s nearly 1000 local school districts.

“For the last two decades, there has been a national movement to micromanage teachers from afar, through increasingly minute and prescriptive state and federal regulations,” Brown said in his 2016 State of the State speech. “California successfully fought that movement and has now changed its overly intrusive, test-heavy state control to a true system of local accountability.”

In fact, Brown made local control a central principle of the Local Control Funding Formula, arguably the biggest public school reform in California in decades.

In grappling with the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom has come up against the limits of his authority to tell school districts what to do. Early in the pandemic, he suggested that school districts should stay closed for the remainder of the school year. At another point, he suggested that they should reopen earlier in the summer in order to offset students’ learning loss.

In both cases, he was met by pushback from local school leaders upset at what some of them saw as the governor’s unwelcome intrusion on their decision-making authority.

Now, at almost every press conference when the issue of schools comes up, Newsom affirms the power of local control. “Localism is determinative,” he said way back in April. “We have a vision, but it will be realized at a local level.”

It’s a legitimate question to ask whether in trying to control a virus which easily crosses district boundaries state or federal leaders should have more power to tell schools what to do — and to decide based on health considerations under what conditions they should open or close.

But that is not the way our locally-controlled education system is currently structured in the United States. There are considerable variations as to who has the authority to open and close schools from state to state. In general that is a local or state decision, not a federal one.

That is why Trump and DeVos’ insistence that students be back in school carries so little weight.

Neither of them have the power to dictate what schools do. Congress could set more stringent conditions on receiving federal aid — as it did during the NCLB era — but with a divided Congress that is not likely to happen. And it is even less likely to happen now in light of ESSA, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act devolving more power to the states.

What’s clear is that regardless of what Trump insists on, states and school districts make their own decisions. Trump, of course, does have the power to influence education policies especially in pro-Trump regions of the country, which is why his efforts in this arena should not be dismissed as simply political hot air. It is possible, or even likely, in response to his urgings, in some districts students and staff will return to school when it really isn’t safe for them to do so.

But for the most part, schools will make their own decisions — guided hopefully by sound health guidance instead of politically-motivated edicts emanating from the White House.

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  1. Dr. Bill Conrad 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    While the local control of school districts may save some school districts from the lunacy of the Trump administration, it is by no means a panacea. Many local school boards will do the right thing and focus on online learning during an ongoing pandemic. Some, however, like school districts in Orange County, will not. This variability in local school response may do more harm than a scientifically-based centralized solution. Given the lack of professionalism and accountability … Read More

    While the local control of school districts may save some school districts from the lunacy of the Trump administration, it is by no means a panacea. Many local school boards will do the right thing and focus on online learning during an ongoing pandemic. Some, however, like school districts in Orange County, will not.

    This variability in local school response may do more harm than a scientifically-based centralized solution.
    Given the lack of professionalism and accountability within the K-12 education system, it may not be a good idea to hand over the reins of teaching and learning to local school boards. For example, many local school districts eschew scientifically validated approaches to teaching reading for a Balanced Reading approach that is based on the flawed theory of action that reading is acquired by children in the same way that they acquire oral language.

    The persistence of the achievement gap nationwide was not the fault of the No Child Left Behind initiative. The intentions of this initiative were noble. The lack of local accountability in ensuring scientific systematic approaches to curricula and pedagogy doomed any chance that the achievement gap would be reduced.

    Students of color are most sensitive to quality and consistency in curricula and pedagogy. That is not what they are systematically getting at the local levels.

    As Dick Elmore taught us long ago, the imposition of an external accountability system from the federal level on a local school system that has no real local monitoring or accountability systems only creates a teach-to-the-test approach and other significant pathologies that counteract any chance to narrow the achievement gap. We face the same problem today as local school districts produce 250 page eclectic and unaccountable strategic plans that accomplish very little in reducing the achievement gap.

    Until we commit to totally transforming K-12 education into a truly professional system with strong implementation of scientifically-based curricula and pedagogy led by well trained professionals, no amount of local control tinkering will solve the achievement gap conundrum or any other significant problem that we face.

  2. Mary Johnson,President Parent-U-Turn 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Parents and caregivers, please wake up, The White House has no plan to keep your children safe. They want to send your children back with no masks or social distance. I’d like to thank all the superintendents for standing up for the local children, and continue distance learning. Please don’t listen to the man that told peoples to go out and inject yourself with bleach and Lysol. Listen to the expert and not the Donald Trump.

  3. SD Parent 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    It is questionable whether school boards across the state or the nation have the true capacity to make decisions around reopening and/or the necessary changes to school sites to reopen in the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. "Guidelines" just means ignorant and/or political decisions, which results in the ridiculous situation of San Diego Unified, where the COVID-19 test positive rate is 7%, decides to do all online instruction and the Orange County Board of Education, … Read More

    It is questionable whether school boards across the state or the nation have the true capacity to make decisions around reopening and/or the necessary changes to school sites to reopen in the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

    “Guidelines” just means ignorant and/or political decisions, which results in the ridiculous situation of San Diego Unified, where the COVID-19 test positive rate is 7%, decides to do all online instruction and the Orange County Board of Education, where the COVID-19 test positive rate is 8%, votes to recommend reopening schools without face masks or social distancing.

  4. Rudy morrisette 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I’d love to see your information and updates come sooner than what we’ve already caught on TV.