The role of the federal government in the education system

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As former President George W. Bush once said, "The federal role in education is not to serve the system. It is to serve the children." The educational system has impacted every single American in some way. Through the years the educational system in the United States has become more refined and adaptive to the present times. The government has been the leading force behind the changes with new laws and ground breaking decisions in Supreme Court cases. The fast paced transformations in the educational system are seen in the No Child Left Behind Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the supreme Court cases New Jersey vs. T.L.O and Engel vs. Vitale.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was a first in recent times to markedly attempt to step up the educational system. The act was signed into law on January 8, 2002. It is a reapproved and slightly edited version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was passed 37 years earlier by Lyndon Johnson. The No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB for short, was a realization of a need for change within the educational system. The NCLB gave the federal government more control over education and its processes. The government believed the system was failing, so they took control. Their new presence in the educational system helped to ensure the state and local governments were doing their jobs. The main focal point of the new act was to help disadvantaged children, who would normally be overlooked, to succeed. (Research Center: No Child Left Behind)

One way that Bush proposed to fix the level of education within the United States was to mandate annual testing. He set dates and deadlines for the testing to begin to be administered.

Standards for math, reading, and language arts must be in place by July 1, 2002. Standards for science must be in place by school year 2005-2006. Beginning 2005-2006 annual assessments must be given every year between grades 3 and 8. Beginning 2007-2008, assessments must be given in science. (No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) Executive Summary)

By setting these testing requirements, the government could get a better idea at the progress being made. The assessments also gave a basis on comparison between schools all over the country. From this premise, the government could decide who was succeeding and who needed improvement. There are positive sides to the testing, such as the benefit students receive from preparing for a standardized test. It would greatly improve their skills for important tests in their future, such as the SAT or ACT. Another positive result of testing is the motivation that comes from the student to actually learn and do the work. The student wants to succeed and show their knowledge so this inspires them to learn. The tests also help to determine which students struggle and what subjects they need extra attention in (Pros and Cons of NCLB). Through this knowledge of where success is lacking, teachers can build up a student's intelligence. This allows more individualistic education for children who are not succeeding as they should be. A con to the testing would be the problem of teachers just teaching to the test. This means just covering the minimum information that is needed to pass the assessment and not go through the process of actually learning information. Also, many of the so-called "standardized assessments" are biased and may not be answered the consistently through different cultures. Another flaw to the annual assessments is the fact that states create their own tests for the students. They could make them as easy or as passable as they possibly can. Making the standards low gives the system a false sense of accomplishment (White). This use of low standards skews the results for these tests. Since each state makes their own test, one state may make their standards very high, while another may make them extremely low. This makes the testing unreliable and does not actually give any good results to base the findings on. To make the assessments more efficient, one specific test should be given to all states. Having the tests all the same would allow actual comparisons to occur between states and schools. Doing poorly on standardized tests may result in consequences toward the school. States could lose funding, teachers could be moved, or schools could even get taken over by special officials. To prevent this from occurring, the NCLB act also requires teachers to be better qualified (Projects and Centers).

With better qualified and updated teachers, students would have a greater advantage to succeed. President Bush had this idea in mind when he suggested provisions on teacher qualifications as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act. The requirements the law stated were supposed to promote further progress for teachers and to guarantee they knew their subject areas extremely well (Projects and Centers). The requirements for better qualified teachers raised the standards for the profession. The first constraint is that all teachers must have a bachelor's degree. This simple demand helped to certify that teachers had a certain level of education that was necessary to teach children. The next requirement stated under the NCLB Act was state certification, as determined by the state. This meant a teacher had to somehow become certified to teach. The fact that states could determine how this happened created many issues. It allowed for the restrictions to be slightly less harsh than they would be if the national government had been in control. The whole idea of letting the states find a way to certify teachers could be swing either way, "a state can use this opportunity to strengthen and streamline its certification requirements. It can also create alternate routes to certification" (The Highly Qualified Teacher Provisions of No Child Left Behind). This creates a loophole in the law and the system itself. Terrible teachers could sneak under the radar and have little to no consequences. With easier certifications, schools would save money because they could have awful teachers that work for a lower salary instead of outstanding teachers who would request higher wages. The last requirement for gaining the status as a "qualified teacher" is having competency in the subject that a teacher teaches. The definition of competency is also defined by the state. Some teachers may have to pass a thorough test, receive an advanced certification, or have their teaching experience analyzed. This also allows the state to find ambiguity within these requirements to fit their system at any time. With so many vague aspects to the NCLB Act, many people have argued whether it is truly efficient in its intentions. (The Highly Qualified Teacher Provisions of No Child Left Behind)

Apart from standardized testing and improving the quality of teachers, there are other requirements listed in the No Child Left Behind Act. The main other obligations include having accountability for the progress being made, focusing on reading, and making schools safer for children (The Highly Qualified Teacher Provisions of No Child Left Behind). These requirements have both positives and negatives attached to them. One major criticism to the No Child Left Behind Act is the lack of focus on students above the average level (Cloud). A part of the law's main objective is to have better education for students below an average IQ, but they appear to be ignoring the higher functioning kids. "American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn't even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs" (Cloud). Giving more attention to students with lower levels just hinders the progress of advanced children. Lawmakers believe that these smart students will remain brilliant no matter how they are taught, but as Columbia education professor Abraham Tannenbaum has written, "Giftedness requires social context that enables it. Like a muscle, raw intelligence can't build if it's not exercised" (Cloud). This lack of attention to gifted students not only hurts the child, but it damages the system as well. Many students will not be as motivated to succeed if attention is not given. This lowers a school's progress because the more intelligent children that they usually rely on to bring up their scores will not be achieving as greatly as they should. One major argument in favor of the No Child Let Behind Act is the amount of attention minorities receive. The law set an effort to minimize the gap between race and social class. Studies have shown that this goal is slowly being reached.

Reading and math scores for African American and Hispanic nine-year-old reached an all-time high. Math scores for African American and Hispanic 13-year-olds reached an all-time high. Achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American nine-year-olds and between white and Hispanic nine-year-olds are at an all-time low. (Archived: No Child Left Behind Act Is Working)

These results show that some aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act is working in a positive way for some students. President Bush had the best intentions in mind when he reauthorized this law in 2002, even if there were flawed areas within it. The No Child Left Behind Act was one of the many laws that helped change the education system. Another law that helped the education system was the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA, was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. IDEA replaced the Education for Handicap Children Act that was authorized into law in 1975. The law's intent was to serve disabled children equal opportunities within the education system.

Before this law was enacted only 20% of all children with disabilities were being educated by public schools. Most states had laws that did not allow children with certain disabilities from attending. When EHA was enacted, there were more than one million children who did not have access to public education due to their disability. (Meador)

The EHA was then named IDEA 15 years later. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was significant for the educational system. It opened doors to many students who previously would have been denied to any kind of schooling or opportunity for success. IDEA's number one provision is to serve all disabled children from the time they were born until age 21. Schools are required to provide the best education possible for the child. The school district is responsible for finding a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for a child. They need to find a place suitable for the student to succeed in. If it takes sending a child to another school, then they will do that and may have to pay for it as well. Schools must do anything and everything in their power to help a child do their best. The education for a disabled student focuses mainly on future employment and independent living. Each student has their own education plan specific to their needs and level. This plan is called an Individual Education Program, or IEP. To make an IEP, a long process must occur. A group of individuals usually the parents of the child, a special education teacher, school administrator, and school psychologist are present for a meeting to discuss the plan. The IEP group meets at least once a year to reassess the student's progress with the present path. Everything a student will learn is planned out in their unique Individual Education Program. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also influences how disabled students get punished for breaking the rules. A school must keep the student's disability in mind when deciding disciplinary action. Under this law, the students cannot get suspended for longer than 10 days without a special meeting. If the mishap happened because of a child's disability, then they cannot get suspended. "The 2004 IDEA amendments does provide special exceptions for students who bring weapons to school, who possess, use, or distribute drugs at school, or cause serious bodily harm on another individual" (Meador). To be diagnosed with a disability, a physician must thoroughly examine the child. The student may also have to do several tests to verify and determine the severity of the problem. There are about thirteen different categories a child could be placed in to be considered disabled in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some disabilities that meet these requirements include mental retardation, problems with speech, language, vision, hearing, autism, or certain learning disabilities. Each of the different disabilities causes a big enough problem for a child that they need the special treatment. To insure that a child does not struggle through school, districts promote early detection. It is a school districts responsibility to identify students with disabilities. This means they must get the word spread to parents to get children tested for problems. Although most disabilities are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, not all are. The disability must be enough of a problem that it requires separate or supplementary services for the child. (Meador)

Another provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Act is mainstreaming for disabled children. This means that the children get to be placed into a normal classroom with average students about their same age. Mainstreaming is supposed to benefit not only the disabled student, but their peers as well. For the disabled, they get to work on social and behavior aspects of life. They learn from others around them and adapt to their environment quicker if peers are present. Mainstreaming is also beneficial for non-disabled children. "Research and anecdotal data have shown that typical learners have demonstrated a greater acceptance and valuing of individual differences, enhanced self-esteem, a genuine capacity for friendship, and the acquisition of new skills" (Pros and Cons of Special Education Inclusion). While it is beneficial for some, many other students are affected negatively by mainstreaming. For some, it is entirely too distracting. They do not gain the attention they need to succeed because the teacher is worrying about meeting the needs of the disabled child. In younger ages, many slightly disabled children cause behavioral disturbances as well. Bad behaviors could lead others to follow and be even more disruptive. Problems in behavior for disabled students can cause even more harm to themselves.

Some students with special needs have behavioral issues that will need to be addressed in the classroom. These issues are not only disruptive to the rest of the class, but can also be embarrassing to the student, causing more damage to their social world than would happen if the student was not mainstreamed. (The Pros/Cons: Mainstreaming Students)

Although mainstreaming disabled children does create some acceptance between peers, it can also cause bitterness. Students may become jealous of others due to attention or lack of equal treatment. They began to associate that people with disabilities get away with certain mishaps because they are disabled. The jealousy arousing from that can soon turn into bullying and other behavioral issues. Overall, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act brings in many positive and negative aspects to it. "The mainstreaming pros and cons need to be weighed so that the plan works to the benefit of the student and does not cause a decrease in the academic abilities of the rest of the students" (The Pros/Cons: Mainstreaming Students). Besides these two laws, many court cases have influenced the educational system in the United States. One significant Supreme Court case for education was New Jersey vs. T.L.O. This case involved the issue of search and seizure in school systems. The background of the case is a controversial one. It all started when two 14 year-old high school students were caught smoking in the ladies restroom. This was in the 1980's and smoking was not permitted in many schools at this time. When the girls were caught, they were both taken to the principal's office where one confessed, but the other did not. Her denial of smoking led the assistant principal to search through the girl's purse. There he found a package of cigarettes, which led him to continue searching. When he emptied the purse he found a package of rolling papers usually associated with the use of marijuana, a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, empty plastic bags, a good amount of money in one-dollar bills, a list of students who owed the girl money, and two letters that proved she was dealing marijuana out to others (New Jersey vs. T.L.O). After the discoveries were made by the assistant principal, he turned the young lady over to her mother and the police. When she arrived at the police station, she confessed to selling marijuana at school. Because of her confession and the amount of evidence the police had in their possession, the State of New Jersey pressed charges on her. The young lady attempted to get the evidence erased from court proceedings because the search was illegal and infringed the fourth amendment. The juvenile court claimed that the fourth amendment did apply to school officials, though. This severely hurt her case because the fourth amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. The court "held that a school official may search a student if that official has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is in the process of being committed, or reasonable cause to believe that the search is necessary to maintain school discipline or enforce school policies" (New Jersey v. T.L.O Student Search and Seizure). From this statement, the court ruled that the assistant principal had every right and reason to search the student's purse. The starting point of the suspicion came from her being caught in the restroom. This allowed everything she owned to be legally searched, which led to further incrimination. All the evidence of marijuana and other drug paraphernalia made the court sentence her to one year of probation. The student was unhappy with this ruling and appealed it to the next level of courts. They discovered that there was no problem with the Fourth Amendment dealing with the unreasonable searches and seizures but that there may be something wrong with the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment protects against abuse of the government in legal proceedings. The court thought the student's confession may have dealt with the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court of New Jersey then ruled and disagreed with the original appellate division. It ruled that the evidence be dismissed because it violated the Fourth Amendment. It did this because it found that having possession of cigarettes was not against school rules, so it did not give a reasonable enough cause for the rest of her bag to be searched. In 1983, the Supreme Court accepted New Jersey's petition for judicial review. Two years later, the Supreme Court made a 6-3 decision. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey. The majority believed that the vice principle had a right to search the purse because it was to preserve order within the school. Having to get warrants before pursuing every mishap in a school would slow down the disciplinary process and make it more difficult to keep the school flowing. The school system is much different when dealing with reasons for a search. The court ruled that a school official may only need to have a suspicion while police outside of school must have probable cause.

Also a search will be deemed reasonable if, when it is started, there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated…either the law or the rules of the school. In addition, the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. (New Jersey v. T.L.O Student Search and Seizure)

Under this definition given by the Supreme Court, the vice principal had enough reason to search the young lady's possessions. A teacher had witnessed her smoking which gave him reason to search her purse. Then he had found cigarettes and rolling paper which gave him more reason to continue to search. This Supreme Court case changed the way people viewed their rights and liberties in school. It appears that the moment children walk through the school doors, most of their Constitutional rights disappear. School systems can basically get away with whatever they want as long as it keeps the safety of others in mind. Some disagreed with this ruling because it interfered with the issue of privacy. It is very similar to many other cases dealing with drugs and the authority that a school official has regarding them. Many cases complain about random drug testing, but the Supreme Court upholds that school officials are allowed to test because it helps to keep schools safe. The lack of privacy that the Supreme Court has established with these rulings is surprising comparatively to other rulings and there leniency towards freedom. This is not true when dealing with schools. (New Jersey v. T.L.O Student Search and Seizure) Another court case that changed the school system was Engel vs. Vitale.

Engel vs. Vitale is a debate about school prayer in school. The case started in 1951 in New York. The state school board made up a nondenominational prayer for students to recite at school every day. They made the prayer as vague as possible so no one would be offended. The prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." This prayer was said to be optional, but teachers pushed for students to participate. The school board believed it would have a positive impact on children. However, parents of ten students at this school disagreed. They decided to file a lawsuit hoping to remove the prayer from the school completely. Their argument was that the prayer did not go along with the student's religion. The court stated that "so long as the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or his parents' objection" (Engel v. Vitale (1962)). They agreed with the school board and did not remove the reciting of the prayer. The parents were obviously very unhappy with this decision, so they decided to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court. They continued to have the same argument of a violation of First Amendment rights given to them by the U.S Constitution. They believed a clear wall of separation should occur. The prayer does not follow those guidelines and also it supports an establishment of a religion. This is stated in the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment which says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" (Bill of Rights Transcript). The school board claimed that since they left the prayer optional it did not violate any rights. The students had a choice, so therefore they did not establish any certain religion. Also, they believed that the prayer itself was nondenominational so it could be recited by everyone. The school board did everything possible to insure that it would not offend people. They thought they had done nothing wrong and were completely surprised by the ruling that came from the Supreme Court. The Court found the prayer to be unconstitutional. The Court decided it in a 6-1 majority vote. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion:

"We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' Prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings…in the Regents' Prayer is a religious activity…When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain…. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate" (Engel v. Vitale (1962)).

In the Supreme Court decision, Black wanted to confirm that it was not about religion at all. It was merely about keeping state matters and religious matters apart from one another. This case laid a ground work for other cases dealing with religion to come in later years. The Supreme Court clearly stated that religion does not have a place in the public school system. Optional or not, there is a time and a place for prayer and according to the Supreme Court, school is not considered one of them. (Engel v. Vitale (1962))

In the No Child Left Behind Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there was a clear proposal for change in the education system. The laws made a detailed plan and set deadlines to achieve every goal. While they both had some positive outcomes, the NCLB Act was much more flawed than IDEA. The No Child Left Behind Act was too vague in its requirements and left it up to each state to determine to what extent the law was taken. Both laws tremendously attributed to the ever growing educational system. The Supreme Court cases of Engel vs. Vitale and New Jersey vs. T.L.O also contributed to changing the way public schools function and are viewed. Engel vs. Vitale defined that there was no place for religion within schools. New Jersey vs. T.L.O decided that student's rights in school are not the same as in the real world. It stated that students could be searched easily and only on a basis of suspicion. A probable cause or warrant is not needed for students to be searched. These court cases helped to modernize the education system. The laws and court cases dealing with education shows how truly involved the United States government is.

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