Jack Jennings was the most influential education policy staffer on the Democratic side of Congress—probably on both sides—for the past half century. He served on the House Education Committee team for some twenty-seven years, then founded and led a well-regarded quasi-think tank called the Center on Education Policy, which continues to issue useful studies.
His new book, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is forceful, opinionated, informative, and sometimes quite wrong. (A simple example: He several times attaches my own stint in the Education Department to the wrong president. More importantly, he misstates Richard Nixon’s K–12 proposals and incorrectly describes their handling by Congress.) As Andy Rotherham says on the back cover, “If you agree with everything in this book, you probably didn’t read it closely.”
But there’s much useful history and perceptive analysis here, as well as some pie-in-the-sky recommendations for the future. Particularly interesting to me was how Jennings traced the onset of federal involvement with results-based accountability to the 1988 Title I amendments shaped by Committee Chairman Augustus Hawkins. Those revisions, he writes, “marked a change in attitude among congressional leaders, characterized by increased demands on educators to show academic results as a consequence of receiving federal aid. These leaders no longer believed…that the problem was simply a lack of money. Rather, the belief was growing that schools receiving federal funds should demonstrate that their students were making greater academic progress.”
This is an important addition to the usual account, which leaps from A Nation at Risk in 1983 to the Charlottesville summit in 1990, then to Goals 2000 and IASA four years later.
Jennings acknowledges that these ever-greater demands for results and tighter federal strings were products not just of worrisome education mediocrity, but also decades of cumulative evidence that simply handing out money via programs like Title I wasn’t accomplishing much. He deserves credit for not glossing over such failings, as well as credit for some keen insights into what does and doesn’t work in the federal education policy sphere.
But he does not, in my view, deserve credit for the suite of federal policies he proposes for the future, which comprises a radical increase in spending (to be financed from—where else?—cutting defense and homeland security), a major tightening of the screws on states to force them to make all the changes that Jennings believes would benefit kids, and, finally, either a Supreme Court decision or constitutional amendment to turn educational equity (and funding) into a federal obligation. Opinions will differ as to whether any of this has merit in the abstract. But I can’t picture any scenario under which it would actually happen for as far into the future as I can peer.
SOURCE: Jack Jennings, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2015).