At a time when education-related books and articles referencing the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are a dime a dozen, it’s refreshing to read a book that provides a broader historical context for current federal education policy. While Christopher Cross’s Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age does devote a separate chapter by Paul Manna to the much-discussed and omnipresent NCLB, Cross is able to use his 32 years of experience in Washington, D.C., to offer a broader picture of the evolution of the federal role in education. He traces this growth from World War II to the present, providing important context for policymakers and practitioners wishing to better understand this most recent (and longest) reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Political Education traces the events and people that have shaped federal educational policy. In his preface, Cross writes, “Policy development is woven of personalities, events, and timing.” He chronicles how and why the U.S. Department of Education came into existence, how the Title I program came to emphasize whole-school reform, the history behind the federal government’s special education policy, the justification for the federal role in NCLB, and how the major organizations, interest groups, and policymakers influenced federal policy in these formative years. Throughout the book, Cross makes the case that education at the national level has been shaped by societal issues such as race, civil rights, religion, poverty, politics, special interest groups, and national security, and he maintains that “federal policy has made a positive difference, especially in the education of our most at risk students.”
Cross has served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education and as the Republican staff director of the House Committee on Education and Labor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Education Policy and a distinguished senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States. Given his experience, it makes sense that his book opens with an introductory “policy primer” that provides a brief tutorial detailing the difficulty and complexity entailed in developing federal policy. Not quite as catchy as Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” primer on how a bill becomes a law, the three-page introduction nonetheless sets the stage for the negotiations and effort required to authorize and reauthorize federal policy.
The first seven chapters explore the history behind federal education policy. While the first chapter begins by discussing the creation of the nation’s military academies and the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, it ends in the twentieth century with a discussion of the G.I. Bill and the progressive movement’s influence on education immediately following World War II. This pithy chronicle brings us to the golden years of federal education policy.
Starting with the 1950s, each of the next five chapters chronicles one decade in federal education policy history. These chapters are titled according to corresponding U.S. presidents, underscoring Cross’s belief in the importance of presidential involvement and their powerful ideas in educational policy formation. Topics include the construction of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act during the Kennedy and Johnson years (chap. 3), the creation of the Department of Education during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter eras (chap. 4), the fate of education during the Reagan years (chap. 5), and the bipartisanship that emerged to support federal education policy during the Bush (I and II) and Clinton administrations (chap. 6).
Chapter seven, “Leaving No Child Behind,” brings us into the current discussion, which has engendered so much recent acrimony and debate. Authored by Paul Manna, an assistant professor in the College of William and Mary’s department of government, this chapter enumerates the challenges in crafting such a lengthy and involved federal education law. At the end of the chapter, Manna discusses reactions to the law, downplaying resistance to its enactment. In chapter eight, “Lessons Learned from a Half-Century of Federal Policy Development,” Cross characterizes what can be learned about the development of federal education policy, including the power of the federal court system, the fact that federal law is all too often shaped by anecdotes, and that “attempt[s] to deal with parental involvement . . . have been half-hearted.”
The final chapter leads the reader through a relatively lackluster exploration of the possible future role of federal policy. This is where the book, having set the stage for a thoughtful and critical review of next steps, falls short of its duty. In the final pages of Political Education, Cross calls for a congressional task force to study the fragmented nature of federal education policy. According to Cross, Congress is organized into a system of committees and subcommittees that ensures that K–12 education is never looked at as a whole, resulting in unnecessary bureaucracy that fails those children it claims to and aims to serve. He is nevertheless quick to admit that “it is unlikely that these congressional structures will ever be dismantled.” This bleak observation, and the lack of any substantive forward agenda, leaves the reader wanting further recommendations.
Overall, Cross takes a comprehensive look at federal education policy development and, to a lesser extent, its implementation. While not particularly insightful in terms of its recommendations nor penetrating in its critique of Washington politics, the book is clearly written, informative, and generally well-balanced.