Federal File

December 03, 2003 1 min read

History Lessons

The federal role in education has changed dramatically since the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917.

That vocational education measure is considered the first direct federal program support for precollegiate education, according to Christopher T. Cross. The longtime participant in federal policymaking has written a concise but illuminating history of federal K-12 education policy called Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age.

Mr. Cross wasn’t involved in the 1917 law, but he has had a hand in every major piece of education legislation since the early 1970s, either as a Republican congressional aide, an assistant secretary in the Department of Education under the first President Bush, or as the head of the Council for Basic Education, among other jobs.

The book, published this month by Teachers College Press, is chock- full of historical nuggets. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a fan of task forces on education policy, but one federal official who agreed to chair such a panel was surprised to read in the newspaper that the president was expecting a final report in 60 days.

The prohibition against sex discrimination in education known as Title IX got no mention in the press the day after Congress gave final approval to the Education Amendments of 1972, Mr. Cross writes. School busing provisions in the broad education measure got most of the attention.

The Department of Education, for many years a Republican target for elimination, has ultimately advanced the education agenda, primarily through its “bully pulpit” role, the author concludes.

Beginning with the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and continuing with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the federal role has grown beyond supplementary services to affect core teaching and learning. That trend is probably irreversible, Mr. Cross concludes.

“Although the federal government contributes less than a dime of every dollar spent on K-12 education,” he writes, “the leverage those few cents have is immeasurable.”

—Mark Walsh