British soldiers

The federal Department of Education keeps trying to tell us they have a limited role in education, but what they are doing tells a different story. Take the Principal Ambassadors Fellowship (PAF) program which started last year.

This program is meant to “recognize the important impact that a principal has on instructional leadership, the school environment, and talent management and to better connect this expertise and knowledge with education policy makers.” Hard to argue with that observation. The program was championed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). The fellows chosen for this program are spending this year designing the program “to best accommodate the needs and attributes of principals.” However, they will be designing the program within the framework established by the US Department of Education which says that the goal of the PAF is this.

“All PAFs will spend time gaining greater knowledge of the content of key federal programs and policies, in addition to the context and process by which they are designed and implemented. They will be asked to share their expertise with federal staff members; provide outreach and communication about federal initiatives to other educators on behalf of the Department; and facilitate the involvement and understanding of educators in developing and implementing these efforts at the federal, state and local levels, to improve the likelihood of their success.”

So, rather than being a voice from the local level informing DC policy makers of their needs and concerns, these fellows will be a voice of the DC policy makers informing the local stakeholders (i.e. taxpayers) about federal programs and working on the best ways to implement them.

Some at the local level are calling them the common core police, though clearly their focus will go well beyond common core. They are part time federally paid employees who work approximately 20 hours per week in the schools. These are federal agents on the federal payroll, not employed by the local school board, but assigned to work inside local schools to promote and enforce federal programs.

The public has not really heard about the PAF program. A school board in Michigan only heard about it when they were conducting interviews for their open superintendent position. One of the applicants told them that he had also applied for a PAF job with the US Dept of Ed. The applicant seemed to be pitching his candidacy because he came to the district with money.  That is the danger of this program. It is seen as “free” money for struggling districts.

A few years back the establishment regime leveraged the democrats and their unions to stack the deck and pre-position policies and union contracts (in states with collective bargaining)  such that any real cut to state funding revenues in our schools would be most readily felt in administrative positions. The public perceives the highest wasteful spending in public education to be in the administrative sector. Many schools have been on a cutting binge with these positions because such cuts are popular with the taxpayers. Some schools have cut their  superintendent position to be half time superintendent, filling in the other half of his/her time as a high school principal. Guidance counselors were cut. Assistant principals were reassigned other duties such as dean of students and school nurses were cut out of the budget all together.

gingerbreadIn steps the PAF program offering free administrative support in the sector that has shouldered the brunt of cuts lately. How tempting is that?  Like a gingerbread house in the woods to starving children, these principal ambassadors will be seen as a gift. The PAFs  can still help out in much of the same sorts of rolls as an assistant principal, in between imposing federal agendas and policing them inside our schools.  School boards and superintendents will view the notion of a half-time “free” administrator at no cost to the district budget as being a huge incentive to accept them. It’s a foot in the door to pilot a top-down federal management structure for our schools, marginalizing the roll of the board. Give it a few years, and read up on the topic of “mission shift” if you want to put the pieces together and figure out where this is going.

Some local boards are looking at ways to keep these federal agents from using local school grounds or facilities in any way. One superintendent questioned if it could be argued that these federal agents would be a violation of the 3rd amendment, which forbids the quartering of federal soldiers in our homes. The school house is a community’s home for its children’s schooling, and shouldn’t allow any federal agents being quartered there.

HR-5 is the $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, which combines all of the 12 individual appropriations bills into one large 1,582 page spending package that covers every facet of federal spending including investments in education. The bill covers appropriations for the Student Success Act which currently includes funding to construct local regional federal offices to house the supervisors of these principal ambassadors. Our House members still do not get the point that the federal Department of Education is not supposed to deliver or enforce education policy.  Instead, congress is following the promises of Arne Duncan and others directing federal policies that say, “But we know what is best for everyone. If we could just make sure our ideas were implemented properly, then everything would be fine.”

This same thinking has led to the formation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, co-chaired by designees of the Office of the Vice President and the White House Council on Women and Girls, and staffed by the secretaries of the Interior,  Health and Human Services and  Education among others. The Federal Register Notice for the formation of this group acknowledged that schools have made progress towards making their campuses safer, and there already exists several federal laws to ensure this. But the federal government still needs to do more.

You see how this works now? Whatever you’re doing will never be enough. There must be more and more federal involvement until, eventually you at the local level are merely the end enforcement agent of federal policy.

Could PAFs be useful in the local schools as a means of providing feedback to the feds about their policies? Unlikely. The mere presence of federal agents working in local school offices will weaken conversation among staff about the potential negative consequences of federal programs. If people feel that they are being observed by federal agents, they will  be less likely to express such concerns, giving a skewed impression to local leadership that there is agreement about the federal programs.  The PAFs will likely be piloted in the districts that have the lowest scores on standardized tests. People won’t complain about receiving “extra help” from the feds when they are already failing miserably at the local level and experiencing the greatest financial hardship. The schools taken over soonest by the new top down education control will be the ones in our poorest neighborhoods. But don’t worry.  It’s all being done by those who know what’s best for the little children.


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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