NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the latest briefing in the New York Foreign Press Center’s 2022 U.S. Election Midterm Series. I would like to welcome our FPC members as well as our overseas journalists. My name is Mahvash Siddiqui, and I am the moderator. Just a reminder, this briefing is on the record. First, I will go over the ground rules; and after that, I will go ahead and introduce our speaker. Following our speaker’s opening remarks, we’ll open it up for questions and answers.
Now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. Our briefer is an independent expert, and the views expressed by the briefer are his own. Our briefer is not affiliated with the Department of State or the U.S. Government and does not reflect the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government. Participants – participation in the Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of briefers’ views.
For today’s briefing, we welcome Professor Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education at Teachers College and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Professor Henig is an expert on urban politics, racial politics, and school reform, and author or coauthor of 12 books. Professor Henig will speak to how education touches almost every American household, but education rarely makes it to the top of voters’ stated priorities. However, with COVID-related school closures and with conversations on diversity and other social issues in American schools, education has been brought into prominence as a voter priority. And with that, it is my great pleasure today to introduce Professor Henig.
Professor, over to you, sir.
MR HENIG: Thank you, Mahvash. So I realize we have a very diverse audience – a lot of countries, a lot of media outlets, different types of media outlets. So rather than try to sort of thread the needle and anticipate everything that you’re interested in, I’m going to keep my basic presentation relatively short, and then I’ll be happy to answer any kinds of questions, including on issues that I may not have touched on in my talk.
There will be three parts to what I’m going to say initially. First, because it’s complicated, I’m going to say something about how education is governed in the United States. Compared to most other countries, it’s a highly decentralized system, and it makes things wildly confusing at times even for those who have lived here our whole lives.
Then I’m going to say something about some important changes that have unfolded over the last three, four decades. Because while the U.S. remains a highly decentralized education system, the trend has been towards greater centralization, meaning more role for the U.S. states and the national government as opposed to local school districts.
And then third, finally, I’m going to bring things around to recent – the very recent developments and draw a distinction between centralization, which has been a long-term trend, and what I call nationalization, which is the infiltration into local politics of national actors and national discourse. And that’s leading to the overlap that we’re seeing that’s relatively unusual now between school issues and national issues, like the upcoming congressional midterm elections.
So just some basic facts to get us started: The education system in the U.S. traditionally has been largely governed at the local level. There is something like 13,500 school districts in the U.S. They vary tremendously. Some are very large, like New York City, which has roughly 1,500 schools and about a million students, but some districts are very small. One in five districts in the U.S. have 600 or fewer students in total. Some school districts only have one school or two schools. So a tremendous difference in terms of the size and capacity and visibility of these districts.
Most school districts in the U.S. are governed by local elected school boards elected at the local level. Although since 1991, there have been a number of large cities that have moved towards what we refer to here as mayoral control where the mayor appoints the school board, and in some instances the school superintendent or chancellor, as the executive leader is called in some places. Highly visible places like New York City and Boston and Washington, D.C. have mayoral control rather than an elected school board.
Elections at the local level where the action historically have been generally low-key affairs, very low turnout, often the elections are held at a different time from the general elections in November, which plays a role in that low turnout. In most places, those elections are formally nonpartisan, which means there are not party labels on the ballot. And for those set of reasons, quite often education politics has been buffered from what I referred to as general-purpose politics, the politics around mayors and governors and presidents and Congress, and less partisan and often somewhat parochial in terms of local interest as opposed to state and national interest.
Now, as I said, some of this has been changing over the last three, four decades. There’s not a sharp distinction between when these phases occur, but some people would date it to 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, which was a major report that criticized the American education system and, to some degree, punctured what had been Americans’ self-confidence, overconfidence that they – that the U.S. system is the best in the world.
We tend to think everything here is the best in the world, but A Nation at Risk opened up a range of criticisms and led in various ways – and I can go into this more if there are questions about it – to a more assertive role first on the part of state governments, which began to articulate standards by which they would evaluate local district performance. And then with No Child Left Behind in 2001 signed by Republican President George Bush, a much stronger insertion of the federal government into the mechanics of education. Not directly; there’s powerful reasons why the federal government, national government does not dictate curriculum for the most part, tries to stay away from some of the inside story about what happens in schools. But with A Nation at Risk, using federal grant money as a way to encourage, almost force states to more aggressively test children, publish the results of those tests and intervene in schools if they’re failing to meet certain performance standards.
Now, again, I don’t want to go into all of this now unless there’s some interest, but one way to think about this shift towards centralization is to recognize that there’s four dimensions really in turn that influenced how education is addressed in the U.S. One of those has to do with law and legally, constitutionally, in the U.S., the power over schools is vested in the states, not in the national government. It’s not articulated at all as the power of the national government in the U.S. Constitution, and thereby the legal interpretation is that it’s reserved to the states. And not at the local government because in the U.S. local governments are regarded as creatures of the state, creations of the state. So any power they have comes from the state. So, law.
Second, money. So the federal government in the U.S., when we’re talking about K to 12, kindergarten through high school, only pays less than typically 10 cents on the dollar in terms of funding public education. The rest of the expense is picked up by states and localities in roughly equal proportion. That differs from state to state.
So there’s law, there’s money, there’s capacity. When it comes to people, power, knowledge, historically most of the people who work in the public education system are employed at the district level – at the local district level. So when the states and federal government try to steer education as they’ve increasingly done over the last 40 years, they have to find a way to get the local-level actors to make the changes that they envision.
And the fourth is norms, and that’s important in the U.S. because there’s a powerful tradition and expectation that education should be handled locally. That’s eroded to some extent, but it’s still a very powerful force in terms of dictating how people react to issues.
So what happened following A Nation at Risk is first governors and then ultimately the president and Congress got more invested in education, partly based on mistrust of local districts in a sense that they hadn’t done as good a job as they had. Democrats tended to mistrust local districts, particularly those in the South that had done a dismal job in terms of educating African American students in particular. Republicans tended to mistrust local districts because they saw in many large cities power shifting from white to black leadership and also a very strong role of teachers’ unions in terms of affecting local politics. So those – that sort of mistrust of localities both on the right – some on the right and some on the left contributed to this atmosphere where the states and the federal government got more and more involved.
Now, let me just pass from that now to the – to sort of set up what’s been happening recently. Obviously, I’m skimming over a lot of details that we can come back to.
At the tail end of the Barack Obama administration, there was some substantial pushback at the national level against what had been this growing centralization, this growing role of the federal government intervening in education. And in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was the national education legislation passed in 2015, there was some effort to pull out or back away from the national government back to the states. So in that sense the trend towards centralization kind of leveled off and may have decreased a little bit.
But ironically, what didn’t change and may have actually gotten more evident since then is the intersection between national politics and local education politics. For years that decentralization and the fact that education was governed by school boards, school-specific institutions, had kept education issues somewhat buffered, as I said before, from the give and take of partisan battles in Washington and ideological battles of pro-government involvement and pro-market involvement, things like that. Education had its own quieter dynamic. But what we’ve been seeing in the last five years or so is a re-engagement of interest on the part of national actors – that’s political parties, that’s national politicians, that’s national interest groups, it’s national foundations that give money for education, it’s electoral donors who support candidates at all level of government – a growing interest of these national actors in influencing local school politics and bringing the story of local school politics into the national debate.
That’s partly because these national actors have realized that a lot of the capacity to actually affect education is at the local level. It’s also because they’ve realized that education is an issue that often motivates voters, particularly voters who may not be already actively involved in national politics, Republican or Democrat, may be somewhat apolitical, but when it comes to kids and when it comes to their kids they respond intensely. And those are – the groups are particularly important looking towards the midterm elections because those are the folks who aren’t firmly in the Republican camp or firmly in the Democratic camp. They’re that small number in the U.S. which has become highly polarized, that small set of voters who may or may not vote and if they vote may go either way in the national election. So national actors have become hyper focused on these people.
Now, the issues that have been popping up over the last few years have been those related to COVID and issues relating to school closings, to mask mandates, to vaccination mandates for teachers and students, which have energized some parents at the local level, some of whom have supported those policies and some of whom have adamantly opposed those. Also been very evident in issues relating to race and the teaching of race, particularly – many of you may have encountered it in terms of a focus on critical race theory, which essentially is the argument that racial inequality in the U.S. is deeply baked into history and institutions and isn’t just resident in hearts and minds of individuals, and to understand racial inequality you need to grapple with those things, countered on the right by the view that that’s making schools take a political position. It’s having teachers impose their ideology on students. It’s having attention to the history of racial inequality making white students feel guilty or that they’re somehow responsible for these historical injustices.
So those are two very emotionally sensitive issues, the kinds of things that can mobilize parents who don’t normally get involved. The third one that’s involved in this recent issue is issues around gender and gender identity and what schools should and shouldn’t teach about that and about sex.
So what you see now – and I refer to this as nationalization – is the national debates on these issues are zeroing in on local arenas as ways to set up a difference and clarify the difference between Republicans and Democrats. And both the Republicans and Democrats are tactically and strategically trying to use these education issues as ways to mobilize their base in some instance, both to make sure that they get the turnout they want but also to attract – and importantly to attract these potential swing voters, many of whom are located in suburbs; particularly, suburban voters who were turned off by many aspects of the Trump administration are seen to be in play. They swung things, arguably, towards Joe Biden in the last election. Republicans – some national Republicans think these voters can be pulled back into the Republican fold around these culture war clash issues at the local level.
So I think that’s the story. I’ll wrap up it up by just saying that what’s happened is these national issues and national actors are actively involved in cultivating local constituencies, actively involved in providing talking points and strategic advice to local people involved in education issue, partly because they care about education and education reform but largely because they see this as a way to mobilize their own voters and attract swing voters in this upcoming election, with the result that education, which historically has not been a big issue in national elections, may – may, and I’ll be happy to take questions on why I’m going to emphasize the “may” – may be a bigger factor in November than it has been recently. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you so much, Professor Henig, for sharing your expertise with us. Appreciate your very informative presentation. Let’s open the floor for questions. If you have a question, please raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you. When called on, please enable both your audio and your video, and please identify yourself with your full name and your media outlet. You’re also welcome to type your question in the main chat room.
So I actually have a question submitted by Jana Ciglerova from Denik News, Czech Republic. She is asking: “Do you notice, Professor Henig, a higher tendency of home schooling after the pandemics? And if so, do you consider this trend dangerous or beneficial to the level of education of the U.S. population?”
MR HENIG: Well, there had been a growing trend towards home schooling predating the pandemic, but there’s no question that at least during the pandemic and the ongoing pandemic, it’s increased further. And that’s – in the U.S., that home schooling can be totally home schooling but increasingly parents who are home schooling are also drawing on the materials provided by private companies that provide support to parents home schooling in the U.S.
There’s a major movement towards charter schools, which are less under the authority of local school districts, and some charter schools – again, predating the pandemic – were offering virtual education exclusively. Those schools have expanded their student enrollment in the context of the pandemic. And you also have the traditional school districts having to do more virtual delivery of education.
So yes, there’s been a growing move there. There’s a concern on the part of traditional supporters of place-based, school-based public education that this is going to represent a major source of exit of students and a weakening of support. Ironically, prior to the pandemic a lot of critics of traditional public education, supporters of charter schools and vouchers and other private school and home schooling and other privately – private modes of providing education, they were posing the technology of virtual education combined with home schooling as the wave of the future. And for the most part, the pandemic experience, at least in the short term, has soured a lot of people on virtual instruction, and so I – and because in the U.S. that home schooling and virtual delivery are so closely entwined, it may actually work against the home schooling movement in the long run.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that. There’s another question from Jelena Stevanovic. And Jelena, if you’re here, would you like to ask the question? She’s from Serbia, from Politika News. Okay, I guess I’ll go ahead and ask the question on her behalf. Her question is: “Is student debt forgiveness putting education on a national election agenda?”
MR HENIG: Yes. So as I’m sure many of you know, the Biden administration has proposed eliminating a portion of student debt and changing some of the rules in terms of how those debts are repaid and reducing the burden on those who are carrying student debt, and that’s a controversial issue. It is a controversial issue, and right now because this is so recent, it’s a very controversial issue and part of the national debate.
How much of a role it’s going to play in November I think is very unclear. Right now it fits into the talking points on both the Democratic side and the Republican side. On the Democratic side, it fits into the talking points to say that government can actually make people’s lives better and it can help them pursue higher education in an affordable way. On the Republican side, it’s fitting into the talking points of government over-promising, spending money that’s going to cost the taxpayer in the long run, and shifting the burden of providing services onto – the argument is onto taxpayers who have not themselves partaken in the benefits of public resources and thus does unfairly burden them.
Issues come and go pretty quickly in the U.S. context, and this is likely to lose a little bit of steam. It’s going to be challenged in the courts. It’s not clear how quickly this is actually going to roll out. By the time we come around to November, my guess is that there’ll be other issues that are going to be more prominent on the agenda.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that answer. There’s another question from Marcel Calfat from CBC Canada. Marcel, would you like to ask that question yourself, or should I go ahead and ask?
QUESTION: Sure. Well, thank you first, FPC, for doing this. This is great. I love your series. And Professor Henig, thank you so much. I have really two questions. The politicization of education issue – has it been beneficial for education in this country?
MR HENIG: Well – so let me first acknowledge that this is something that people argue about. Historically, the U.S. likes to – and with some justification, has seen education as somewhat nonpartisan, outside party debate. And so when people say politicization, what they usually mean now is the increasing partisanship of the discussion.
I’m not a subscriber to the notion that education can be outside of politics. I mean, it’s too important. It’s a major resource. Public education is the way that society sort of gets directly into families and households at important times and can address various kinds of inequities. And there are important differences of view about what government should and shouldn’t be doing, and those are political in nature.
So politicization – if by that one means sort of active political debate, people taking sides, articulating alternative views and battling it out in elections. I think that’s – that can be healthy. Okay? Politicization, when it becomes dominantly partisan, where actors who are anchored into their ideological positions are not engaging in real dialogue, are just beating one another on the heads with large sticks, that is harmful to education, at least in the near term, because it’s undermining some of the traditional support that public education has precisely because people felt it wasn’t partisan.
QUESTION: And my second question – thank you for that. And my second question is, like for example, the issue of banning books in certain schools or the gender issue. Is that a winning strategy for a political party?
MR HENIG: Well, I think the Republican political party and strategists think it’s going to be a winning strategy, and a lot of them took very seriously the victory of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia for governor because Virginia is a state that does go Republican sometimes, Democrat sometimes. And Youngkin did make a major – put a major emphasis on eliminating critical race theory, giving parents a greater voice, and so the Republicans started to, very strategically, think that this is an issue that they can replay in other places.
But as you said, there’s – this issue has evolved a little bit over time. And as people are seeing what seemed initially like a critique of left-wing ideology – as they’re seeing it turn into book banning, including banning of classic books, putting handcuffs on librarians, restricting access to books – I think we’re beginning to see a backlash against that initial framing. And I think some Democratic strategists now think they can win that war if they pose these efforts on the part of Republicans as examples of ideological conservative efforts to steer schools away from traditional notions of educating a broad and diverse and critically sophisticated citizenry.
QUESTION: Thank you. I appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for that question and thanks for your response, Professor. The next question is from David Leask from The Herald in – based in Scotland. David, would you like to ask that question yourself?
QUESTION: Hi there, can you see me?
MODERATOR: Yes, loud and clear. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for your time. I would like to ask about small-scale elections for local school administrations. Do you ever worry that low turnout, low participation could lead to people who perhaps have a very narrow political view hijacking the system, that maybe these systems could be overtaken by people whose views are not particularly mainstream?
MR HENIG: Yeah, I – it’s certainly a risk. Now, the low turnout of – and U.S. school board elections has been – this is a phenomenon that’s been in place decades and decades and decades. And there’s always cases of people who run for the school boards who have a particular agenda and can hijack, as it were, the school board, at least for short periods of time.
What’s changed, though – and I think this is important – is those kinds of historical examples of strong actors dominating a local school board and taking advantage of low turnout used to be primarily localized and segmented from the national debates and national trends. They would be fought out in a particular community over time, and in subsequent elections often there’d be a resurgence of interest on the part of citizens who want to try to regain control of the school district.
What’s different now is because these things have become nationalized, they’re aggregated into major social movement efforts. So rather than just being a story in this little community or that little community, it’s turning into a deliberately constructed battleground to try to take over local school districts, with money and resources coming from outside to do that. And yes, I think there is a risk.
Now, it’s reduced a little bit by the structural anomaly that many school board elections are – occur at a different time of year from the national elections. That puts a limit on how much involvement you’re going to get from national donors, who tend to still be focused on November. But yes, it’s a legitimate concern.
QUESTION: Can I ask a quick follow-up?
MR HENIG: Sure.
QUESTION: Which would be: How do – how would you imagine you could increase participation in these kinds of elections?
MR HENIG: Well, I mean, you can increase participation in the short run by candidates engaging in these highly contentious issues. To increase turnout in the long run, I think one suggestion has been – and some places have moved in this direction – is to make school board elections held on cycle with general purpose elections rather than having them, as is now the case often, in the spring or having them in odd-numbered years rather than even-numbered years when most U.S. general purpose elections are, to put them at the same point in time. Now, that will raise – in all likelihood, and there’s empirical research that shows that communities that have on-cycle election have higher turnout than those that have off-cycle election – so that would raise participation. That could be participation – again, in the sense of my answer earlier, that could be participation of the healthy kind where people get engaged, they debate, they discuss, one side wins, one side loses, and this happens over time; or it could be engagement of the more partisan, rancorous, ideological contestation. So could be for better, could be for worse.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, David, for that question, and thank you so much, Professor Henig. Since there are no other questions – I don’t see any other hands raised – I’m going to go ahead and conclude this briefing. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I’d like to thank Professor Henig for being with us today. Today’s briefing was on the record. I will share a transcript with everyone who’s participating today, and it will also be posted on our website, fpc.state.gov. Thank you all and have a wonderful day, and thank you so much, Professor Henig.
MR HENIG: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
MODERATOR: Appreciate it.