Public education is considered the great equalizer in the United States, an avenue for upward mobility and continuation of our democracy. Society benefits from a well-educated populace. Because of this, education policy debates are fraught with concerns about equity of access to education. This chapter explores issues of K–12 and higher education in the United States, focusing on quality of and access to education.
Policy makers must address a number of problems and issues, including funding for public schools, the separation of church and state, the quality of education, and school vouchers. Until recently, the federal government has mostly left public primary and secondary education to state and local governments (aside from providing funding, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] of 1965). Historically, most public school funding comes from local property taxes. This tax is not buoyant in terms of keeping up with inflation, which has led to insufficient funding for districts. This funding shortfall engenders concern about the equity of public education opportunities, and has led to proposals for increased federal funding.
Separation of church and state is another K–12 educational policy. The First Amendment to the Constitution includes the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses ensuring the separation of church and state. The use of public money to fund education requires that education policy analysts address questions about the role of prayer in school and funding for private schools. The quality of public education has become another significant educational policy concern. The various ways to measure quality have an impact on how policy proposals are evaluated. Policy proposals to improve teacher quality may not weigh the impact of the community variables such as poverty rates and parental involvement. Other proposals seek to increase testing requirements. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 required that states administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Many policy reforms are underway. While the Obama administration policies provided relief from the stringent requirements of NCLB, the administration’s policies also offered a blueprint for improving the quality of public education. Merit pay is a controversial proposal to pay teachers for student performance attempted by several states. Related to merit pay are proposals for teachers to meet certain standards to remain certified in the profession, including usage of competency tests. Others argue for increasing teacher salaries. Proponents of expanded options for parents to choose where to educate their children are likely to support proposals for school vouchers, school choice, and charter schools. More recently, Common Core Standards, a national set of educational standards, have led to controversy about the role of the federal government in public education.
Issues in higher education include affirmative action, which contributed to a number of states stopping preferential admissions for minority groups. Another major issue concerns the costs of higher education, which are substantial and continued to grow. As states diminish the level of financial support to higher education, public colleges increase tuition to make up the shortfall. The hike in tuition raises questions about the equity of access to college. Pell Grants are available for low-income students, although they have not kept pace with college tuition increases. Although, higher education costs and funding provoke considerable debate, the value of a college education from an individual’s perspective cannot be overestimated.