A panel of local leaders wrestled with the vexing question of what role the federal government should play in education during a discussion hosted Wednesday night by the League of Women Voters of Washington County.
Exactly where and how the federal government fits into education — a question the league is posing nationally — could not be answered simply, and the discussion kept the five panelists engaged for more than an hour.
"As you all know, the U.S. Constitution is silent on the establishment of public school systems," said Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools. "So one might argue there is little direct federal role in the public schools."
Yet county Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said education can fall under other phrases framed in the Constitution, including "to provide for the common defense and the general welfare."
"I believe it is in that statement where education lies," she said.
Historic social inequities have drawn the federal government into education, said Denise Fry of the Washington County Teachers Association.
The federal government has provided free and reduced lunches to economically disadvantaged students, accommodations for students with disabilities, and mandated race and gender equality, to name a few.
During the discussion, moderator Evvie Williams posed questions to the panel, which included Wilcox, Fry, Callaham, Wayne Ridenour, who is president of the Washington County Board of Education, and B.J. Ostrum, who is a parent.
After opening with a question about the role of the federal government in education, Williams asked what is the federal government's responsibility for financing education.
The federal government can wear the hats of both financier and mandator, but too often it fails to wear the two together, Ridenour said.
Federal mandates should come with money, or, at the very least, cost neutrality, he said. However, policies like No Child Left Behind have proven to be anything but cost neutral and come with added punitive measures.
Ostrum said the answer to the question of federal funding in education can be characterized by the joke: "When was the last time the military had to host a bake sale to buy a fighter jet?"
Among the other questions, Williams asked the panel for an example of a federal mandate that proved to be good for education and one that proved to be bad.
As for good, Ridenour mentioned Title IX, referring to mandated gender equality in education, most notably sports.
No Child Left Behind has proven to be both good and bad, Fry said. It has pushed school systems to be better, but has punished those who have not made the grade, she said.
Despite frequent criticism, Head Start is a program that has prepared many students, who would otherwise have been disadvantaged, to begin school, Ostrum said.
IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has given youth with disabilities, both cognitive and physical, the services and opportunities to learn, Wilcox said.
"And I think few people would take exception to the free and reduced lunches," he said.