Published Online:

Elections Are Likely To Spur Shift in Power

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

As the reconfigured Congress and state legislatures prepare to convene next month, many lawmakers and governors are signaling an interest in rethinking the roles of federal, state, and local governments. That sentiment could launch the most dramatic power shift in decades.

Observers say the Republican victories in the midterm elections have laid the groundwork for a transformation that would curtail federal powers in favor of state decisionmaking in a host of policy areas, including education. At the same time, state G.O.P. leaders may speed up experiments in transferring authority from state capitals to local governments.

The elections, in which the G.O.P. captured majorities in the House and the Senate, took a majority of the governorships, and made big gains in state legislatures, "certainly accentuated a trend that has been, perhaps, already under way," said Donald F. Kettl, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "The feeling of having less government and less federal involvement is going to accelerate."

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Kettl suggested, such changes could lead to the consolidation of some education programs into block grants or to limits on federal regulation of schools.

But the transformation in Washington could go considerably further than that, according to Patty Sullivan, an education-policy analyst at the National Governors' Association.

She said state and federal lawmakers are discussing "devolution," or turning over to the states services that federal programs now provide, as well as the possibility of swapping or splitting responsibilities.

Under such schemes, states could assume burdens now carried by some federal programs while the federal government assumes full responsibility in other areas, or they could agree that the federal government would finance higher-education programs while states pay for elementary and secondary schools.

"If you talk about total devolution, that means no more Goals 2000," Ms. Sullivan said, referring to the federal education-reform law that President Clinton won approval of last spring. "That's going to be very much a part of the discussion."

"I don't know who's going to defend [federal education] programs if states are offered a much better deal," she added.


Congressional Republicans have already promised to shrink the size of the federal government, consolidate some social-service programs, and turn others over to the states. They have enlisted such Washington research and political organizations as the Heritage Foundation and Empower America to develop proposals related to education. (See Education Week, 12/07/94.)

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who is slated to become the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee--formerly the Education and Labor Committee--has pledged to embark on a comprehensive review of the federal role in education. His Senate counterpart, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., is likely to do the same.

And at a recent conference, the Republican Governors' Association, now 30 members strong, called on the incoming 104th Congress to lift federal mandates, limit federal regulation, and enact constitutional changes to enable "states to become full partners again in a dynamic federal system premised on dual sovereignty."

"Restoring balance in state-federal relations," reads a document the G.O.P. governors approved, "is perhaps the most important national reform that could be undertaken by the 104th Congress."

While their Democratic counterparts have not formally echoed the recommendations, they generally seem comfortable with the idea of greater decentralization.

Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, hosted a daylong hearing last week on how to streamline programs to improve services for children and families.

"The relationship [between state and federal governments] was already changing, and the Congress appears ready to push it farther," said a spokesman for the Democratic Governors' Association. "I think most governors would go along with that."

Clinton's 'Reinvention'

In fact, the Clinton Administration--headed by a former Governor--has already made attempts to change state-federal relations, most notably through its "reinventing government" effort. In addition to improving efficiency, the effort is designed to trim the federal bureaucracy, free states and localities from regulatory burdens, and harmonize the workings of the federal government with states and localities.

And last week, Administration officials reached an agreement with the state of Oregon to waive federal regulations related to some child-welfare programs. (See related story)

President Clinton, in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council last week, said he was open to reducing the powers of the federal government.

"The Republicans say they want to give more power back to the states, more power back to the cities," he said. "Let's do it together. But don't you walk away from the fact that we started it, and we intend to finish it, and we want them to go with us."

But while the "reinvention" drive has gotten high marks from some observers, they say Administration officials have failed to win any from voters.

"The Administration, from the very beginning, has had a peculiar way of trampling on their own applause lines," said Mr. Kettl, who has studied the federal streamlining program, known as the National Performance Review.

(See education, the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives the Secretary of Education broad authority to waive certain regulations, and allows grant recipients to consolidate administrative funds and program applications.

The Administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, moreover, is seen by some observers as a federal program that provides tremendous state-level authority. The law includes a demonstration program in which up to six states are eligible to waive regulations in several federal programs in exchange for greater accountability from school districts.

Yet, in some states, policymakers view the Administration's program as an effort to give Washington a heavier hand in running schools, citing provisions that call on states to set content and performance standards and set up a process for developing model national standards.

State Mandates

The trend toward granting school districts waivers from state regulations only emphasizes how restrictive and overly bureaucratic states have become, argues Governor-elect George W. Bush of Texas, who has listed deregulating schools as his top priority.

"Schools spend too much time justifying what they are doing and not enough time doing it," said Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's communications director.

Mr. Bush has championed "home-rule schools," an idea that would allow local voters and school boards to put together their own management plans and curricula if they agreed to abide by state and federal laws and to meet performance standards.

"The students' needs, the textbooks, the hours, the class sizes might be far different in the Rio Grande Valley than in rural west Texas or Dallas or Houston," said Ms. Hughes. "This was the point that got the most emotional response from voters--they know that a one-size-fits-all education system has not worked."

Most readings of November's state-election results suggest that the role of state education departments may move more toward monitoring district performance and away from drawing up marching orders on how schools will operate, according to Chris Pipho, a state-policy expert for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

"This is coming, and it is coming from so many different sides," Mr. Pipho said, noting the prominence of educational deregulation on the agendas of new state school chiefs, governors, state-board members, and federal lawmakers.

This trend is also evidenced in the growing popularity of charter-school laws, which allow local groups to set up publicly financed schools free of most regulations. (See related story

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories