Scholars Debate Proper Federal Role in Education

By Eileen White — May 05, 1982 10 min read
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Reaching a consensus about the appropriate activities of the federal government in American elementary and secondary education was as difficult for scholars at a conference here last week as is has been for national policymakers.

The value for students of participating in federal programs, the effect of equal-opportunity laws on education, and the application in schools of federal research activities were among the topics debated by those invited by the editorial board of the Harvard Educational Review to speak on “Rethinking the Federal Role in Education.”

The tone of the three-day discussion was set by Diane Ravitch, the education historian and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who said she perceived “with the coming of the Reagan Administration, a new willingness to raise questions, to stop and think” about federal education programs.

In that respect, most speakers--among them some of the most distinguished of American educators and scholars--examined past federal practices and discussed various proposals for improving federal involvement in education.

The “tremendous proliferation” of federal programs in the 1970’s was seen by some educators as “taking resources and attention away from the central tasks of the schools,” said Marshall S. Smith, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

One of the causes of this perception was federal program requirements--such as the provision that federal money must supplement, rather than supplant, state and local funds, he said.

Because such requirements resulted in administrative structures for federal programs that were isolated from the “core” school program, federal programs were used as “an easy whipping boy,” he argued in a paper presented with another University of Wisconsin professor, Carl F. Kaestle.

The two concluded that many of the problems schools experience with federal education programs are administrative in nature. They contended, in making the case for continued federal involvement, that school systems nevertheless “have accommodated and implemented these programs successfully ... to an extraordinary degree.”

Their position was characterized by Marvin Lazerson, a visiting professor at Harvard, as a reflection of what Mr. Lazerson called “the new liberalism.”

‘Ambiguities and Tension’

He claimed their argument “trivialized the most fundamental tensions of education” by suggesting that the difficulties in federal policy over the last 40 years derived from bureaucratic problems of “administration, implementation, or evaluation.” On the contrary, he asserted, the federal role has involved “a set of efforts filled with incompatibilities, ambiguities, and tension.”

In Mr. Lazerson’s view, the growth of the federal role in education that began during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s term of office assumed that America could have “public generosity at the same time as private greed.” That is “a half-truth,” he said. “We have to accept that the urge to create the Great Society was a threat because some would gain while others would lose.”

He said that the threat “has provoked the most meanspirited of responses,” an apparent reference to the education budget cuts of the Reagan Administration.

Nonetheless, several speakers affirmed the need for changes in federal policies, suggesting that future government education efforts should focus on the regular school program, rather than on the “margins"--the special populations that were the focus of many categorical programs.

Richard S. Ruopp, president of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, said past federal policies and programs were like “implements chipping away at an enormous block of stone--at elementary and secondary education.”

Characterizing the record of success of federal education programs as “mixed” and “generally disappointing,” Brenda J. Turnbull, a consultant in policy research, recommended that federal involvement focus more on “fostering local capacity.”

Federal funds that permit teachers and administrators of local school systems to develop their own “creative” programs are preferable, she said, to past federal efforts to develop successful practices and “disseminate” them to the schools.

A primary goal of federal education programs since 1965--that of providing minority students with access to an education equal to that of white students--was also a topic of disagreement.

A study about how the federal government can best persuade states to ensure equity for students was presented by Henry M. Levin, a professor at Stanford University and the director of the Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance.

Mr. Levin analyzed four methods of giving out federal funds--general aid, categorical grants, block grants, and matching grants. He concluded that categorical grants were preferable because they “maximize the efficiency of using federal expenditures, minimize variability” among states, and “ensure targetability” toward needy children.

Categorical grants do present at least one well-documented disadvantage compared to the other types of grants, Mr. Levin said. That problem, which he claimed could be improved through paperwork-reduction efforts, is regulations.

Equal Educational Opportunity

The federal government’s practice of broadening the scope of civil-rights laws to promote the concept of equal educational opportunity also drew the criticism of the historian James Q. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson said that he has considered reversing a position in favor of federal education programs that he took in the 1950’s and 1960’s because he has concluded that “federal money leads largely to federal control.”

“The ability to keep separate the concept of federal claims versus federal rights has been lost,” he said. Mr. Wilson drew a distinction between claims, which he characterized as a “useful purpose” for which the federal government could appropriate funds, and rights, which he said “are so fundamental that no cost or inconvenience can be cited as to deny” them.

“The language of rights now attaches to groups that formerly would have been in the area of claims,” he said, citing as examples federal regulations that require buildings to be renovated to accommodate handicapped persons and rules that require colleges to institute large scale sports programs for women.

Mr. Wilson said the courts have played a large role in the “conversion” of claims into rights, a growth that has occurred in part because of “Congressional silence in the matter.”

Nathan Glazer, professor of education at Harvard and an editor of the journal The Public Interest, claimed that the “policies and objectives” of providing equality of educational opportunity “have largely been fulfilled. ... Today, these policies have become reduced to nonissues,” he said.

‘Marginal Matters’

“Marginal matters now engage our energies,” he said, giving as an example the issue of providing federal tax-exemptions to schools that discriminate against black students.

Opposing the Reagan Administration’s attempt to grant the tax benefits is “meaningless for educational opportunity,” according to Mr. Glazer.

“A concentration on further legal measures around the theme of further racial equality is ‘mopping up,”’ he said.

Mr. Glazer said that he would prefer to see federal activity in “the quality of education. ... How does one do something about a genuinely low ambition of attainment in American education? What mechanisms are there for attaining objectives beside the mechanisms of various grant schemes?”

Mary F. Berry, professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a former assistant secretary of education in the Carter Administration, countered that “equality of education is necessary for a quality education.”

“Federal efforts at equal educational opportunity are required under the Constitution” by the 14th Amendment, Ms. Berry said. “Not all education is left to states in the 10th Amendment.”

The Reagan Administration’s “New Federalism” plan, in which most federal education programs would be turned over to the states, was outlined to the conference participants by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

But participants also heard about the results of a Rand Corporation study that, on the basis of an analysis of state responses to the Administration’s new federal block-grants program, suggests that states’ ability to take over those programs may vary greatly.

Milbrey W. McLaughlin, who conducted the study, said the new pro-gram “does not reform federal policy in a way that makes federal policy work better. It has confused matters,” she said.

The notion that the block-grants program would strengthen the management capabilities of state education departments was not supported by results of the study, Ms. McLaughlin said. “‘Retrenchment management’ means maintenance of the status quo.”

Loss of State-Level Control

States also lose because the program “disperses authority across levels of government, away from the state education agency,” resulting in “a net loss of state-level control,” she said.

In addition, the program may result in “Balkanization,” creating a wide variety of services to children, depending on which state or school system they live in, Ms. McLaughlin said.

As to how local school systems would benefit from the program, she reported that “almost no state officials” in the survey told the researchers that the block-grants program “will foster local innovation and program development.”

The Rand study’s findings regarding block grants should not be taken to apply to “New Federalism” as well, argued Richard S. Hodes, the majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives and a professor at the University of South Florida.

“The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act [the law that created block grants] is a lousy law because it isn’t federalism,” Mr. Hodes said.

He claimed that state “legislators, in an era of true federalism, may have a better capacity to deal with funding priorities.”

The participants who debated the success of efforts to improve education through federally funded research programs agreed unanimously on one aspect of that issue: the need for higher levels of federal funding for educational research. Their disagreements centered on assessments of the past successes of education-research programs.

Large-scale federal funding for research began in 1954, and was expanded with the founding of the National Institute of Education (nie) in 1972. The former nie director during the Carter Administration, P. Michael Timpane, claimed that “educational research has made great progress, great strides, in the last 10 years.”

Mr. Timpane, who is dean of Columbia University’s Teachers College, listed several areas in which “a decade of inquiry has produced changes.”

Those areas, he said, include research in reading, teaching, school finance, testing, and the organization of educational institutions.

Concerned with Results

Gordon M. Ambach, New York’s state commissioner of education, responded that he did not take “quite as glowing a view. My concern is with results, with what is in fact happening in the schools,” he said.

One problem of the nie and its predecessor offices is “professional disinterest,” according to Mr. Ambach. “How much can you expect practitioners to support research? How many people on assembly lines support corporate research?” he asked.

He suggested that, as a “technique” for stimulating the interest of state and local educators in federal research findings, the Education Department should set aside funds in “drawing accounts” for various states. States could identify areas of concern, and the nie researchers could study those issues.

“Then states would have a stake” in the research findings, Mr. Ambach said.

Sheldon H. White, a psychologist on the Harvard faculty, said that “a big problem” facing federal research efforts “is that we don’t understand the relationship of research to educational practice.”

‘The Beginning and the End’

Mr. White, who was chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied the nie’s fundamental-research practices in 1976, added that he did not “believe that the federal government is the beginning and end of educational research and development.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about how to keep up the federal research program, but about how to reconstitute at the state and local levels what we’ve had at the federal level,” he said.

The proceedings of the conference will be published in the November issue of the Harvard Educational Review.

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1982 edition of Education Week as Scholars Debate Proper Federal Role in Education


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