Federal, State Partnership Role Called Strong

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

Federal involvement in education has helped strengthen the policymaking capacity of state education agencies and has not been as severe an administrative burden on the states as is commonly believed, according to a report presented last month to the House Budget Committee's Task Force on Education and Employment.

The study, prepared by the Educational Testing Service (ets) under contract to the U.S. Education Department's School Finance Project, found state-federal relations concerning education programs to be "robust, diverse, and interdependent" in the eight states studied in 1981-82. And tensions between state and federal agencies are restricted to a few specific programs' requirements, according to the report, entitled "The Interaction of Federal and Related State Education Programs."

"We did not see states passively administering federal education programs, nor did we see states reluctant to tackle educational agendas of their own--some of which reflected federal objectives, and others of which did not," the ets researchers wrote in an executive summary of the study.

But the state agencies remained heavily dependent on federal funds for agency operations, the study found, and most federal objectives would not find broad political support in the states if the federal role in financing instructional programs and protecting special-needs students were greatly diminished.

In presenting the findings to the Congressional task force, Mary T. Moore, an ets research scientist who acted as project director, said that the federal government can play a significant role in educational improvement "by setting national agendas for both state and local action and by providing federal dollars for educational improvement to ease strained state budgets."

"I frankly am surprised with the finding of this report and [a similar report prepared by sri International, a research firm]," said Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana. "They indicate that both the federal government and the states have had a powerful role in deciding the direction of education policy and that the federal role has not been inappropriate and in fact has been of major assistance to the state and local education entities in the effort to achieve quality. If that's true, then what we have is not burdensome but helpful regulations and dollars."

The report, which was sent to all members of the Congress, could help prevent a "headlong rush toward block grants and the wholesale elimination of regulations," Mr. Williams said. "We do try to deal with the facts. People in very high places have been saying the facts are different."

The researchers, too, were surprised at the finding that intergovernmental tensions have been overstated, Ms. Moore, project director, said in an interview this month. "We'd been warned that we would just hear a litany of problems, but what we got was, 'Well, I don't know that there are so many problems out here, really."'

At the time of the interviews, Ms. Moore noted, the Reagan Administration was pushing for harsh cuts in federal education aid and for deregulation of large programs for disadvantaged and handicapped students. Those threats, she said, may have contributed to a "rosy-glow phenomenon"--the belief, in retrospect, that the difficulties posed by federal policies were minor in relation to the prospect of losing federal funds and direction.

In addition, she said, there was a virtual "freeze" at the time in the bargaining that ordinarily goes on between states and the federal government. "I think that gave [state officials] another perspective," she said. "It's a hard finding to interpret fully, but it certainly did come as a surprise."

Effects of Federal Programs

The study, part of a research project mandated by the Education Amendments of 1978 to examine how public and private elementary and secondary education are financed and what role the federal government should play in the process, was commissioned specifically to assess the effects of federal programs on state-level decisionmaking.

The ets researchers focused on major categorical programs and laws in effect in 1981-82: Titles I (compensatory education, now known as Chapter 1), IV (instructional materials), V (strengthening state-agency management), and VII (bilingual education) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act; the Vocational Education Act; and three civil-rights statutes that deny federal funds to educational institutions that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, and handicapping conditions. They also studied state programs that parallel the purposes of these federal laws.

Their findings are based on documents from the eight state education agencies and on more than 300 interviews with state officials, legislators and their staffs, interest-group representatives, local school administrators, teachers, and education reporters. Because of the diversity of the eight states studied, the researchers believe, their conclusions probably apply generally.

Among the major topics covered in the report:

Sources of intergovernmental tension: State officials most often mentioned certain provisions of P.L. 94-142 and the Vocational Education Act as burdensome. Specifically, they often objected to the lack of a clear definition of "related services" for handicapped children and to vocational-education "set-asides," which earmark a certain percentage of federal funds for disadvantaged, female, and handicapped students.

Ms. Moore speculated that the complaints about special education would "shake out over time"--much as tensions over Title I have--if adequate funds are provided. "In general, there wasn't any objection to the presence of the law," she said. "They were feeling the financial bite, and we suspect a lot of it is being pushed onto the locals."

In vocational education, however, she said it is less clear whether ''more money would be a soothing force," because of the program's decentralized nature and diverse constituency in most states. "There seems to be enough money already to get the state officials to do what they don't want to do in voc ed--collect data and stimulate programs for special-needs students," she noted. "Without federal requirements for set-asides, I think there would be no real interest in doing that sort of thing."

Capacity of state education agencies: Federal programs were influential, although not the only factor, in "altering the size, staff, and functions of state education agencies," the executive summary of the report says, noting that the state agencies have "expanded significantly in size and complexity" over the past two decades.

"In general," the summary continues, "sea [state agency] staff are more diversified in background and skills; in contrast to an earlier emphasis on curricular expertise, sea staff today spend most of their time in activities such as program monitoring, review, technical assistance, data collection, and evaluation." The researchers noted a shift, over the past 15 years, toward "greater authority over school districts and the emergence of a more legalistic relationship between the two levels."

These changes, the summary cautions, cannot be laid to federal programs alone; school-finance reform, the growth of state education spending, and such statewide instructional policies as basic-skills programs all helped consolidate authority at the state level. Similarly, the report states, administrative problems commonly attributed to federal requirements are often the result of state programs and other factors instead.

On average in the states studied, the report noted, about 50 percent of the state education agencies' employees were supported with federal money in 1981-82. Ms. Moore noted that many states have cut, frozen, or reorganized their administrative staffs in recent months and may not be equipped to manage major new state-level programs of instructional improvement.

Degree of federal influence: "We didn't find people in the state agencies or in the state legislatures who felt that the tail was wagging the dog," Ms. Moore said. "They felt that they had their own notions about what they wanted to do and that they could go out and do them. They did have some constraints in some areas where their way conflicted with the way Washington wanted to do it, but they usually found ways to get around that."

For example, she said, officials in one state agency wanted to monitor Title I programs by sending inspectors directly into the schools, while the U.S. Education Department wanted the information collected by districts. "The state just started requiring paper reports from the districts to satisfy the federal requirement, then went out and inspected the way they wanted."

"I guess you could look at the figures and conclude that if 50 percent of the sea staffs are federally funded and only 8 or 9 percent of all the money spent on education comes from the federal government, it is incongruous," Ms. Moore said. "But these people are spending a lot of time on state programs, state business--and that's perfectly legal."

Variety of federal policy mechanisms: The report draws a distinction between federal programs that provide financial assistance with conditions on the expenditure of the funds, which are administered to some degree by the states, and policies that rely on regulation, which are typically directed at individual districts and institutions.

Both mechanisms have advantages and drawbacks, Ms. Moore said. "Regulation is a powerful tool, but it probably can't be extended across the board to every area. Regulation without assistance can bring you a great deal of conflict--so much so that it could derail your goals in the long run.

"A program like Title I is a different form of regulation. If you don't take the money, there's no way you have to comply with any of the regulations. It's become a popular program. Of all the laws that have the greatest effect on what the states are doing, it's probably [P.L.] 94-142, and it uses a variety of approaches--money and regulation."

Management of federal programs: State legislators, governors, and their staffs--even those who are particularly interested in education issues--tend not to become involved in the administration of federal education programs. Hence, the report says, "Decisions regarding the administration of federal programs by and large are firmly in the grasp of seas."

Civil-rights policies: Because federal civil-rights policies are regulatory in nature and tend to be directed at school districts, the report says, they "send the signal that the states are not major instrumentalities of civil-rights policy implementation."

"In our view, in most states, there would be relatively little to no effort in civil rights if the federal government pulled back," Ms. Moore said. "It's very unpopular for any of the state entities to take on."

Although most states have civil-rights statutes on the books, she added, they ordinarily leave enforcement to the federal government.

"Political Support"

Speculating on what would happen in the event of drastic deregulation and budget cuts on the part of the federal government, Ms. Moore said, "There wouldn't be much po-litical support, in general, for states picking up federal-program func-tions if the feds got out of the business." The states would be most inclined to provide special education and some form of compensatory education, she added, but in scaled-down versions.

"What would remain of compensatory education would be basic-skills programs based on achievement and remediation," she said."In states that don't have those programs, I think they'd come into being; half already have them, but the money involved is quite small compared to the federal money."

Rollback in Protections

Education for the handicapped "would survive in some form ... but might not be as comprehensive as it is, and uniformity would vary greatly. There would be a rollback in many of the protections afforded by federal law."

The basic vocational-education programs would also survive, she predicted, but programs for special-needs students would be vulnerable. Bilingual education probably would remain intact only in states where it has a strong constituency.

Copies of Volume I, the analysis section of the report, are available for $8 from two ets offices. Inquiries should be addressed to Richard Coley, 08-R, ets, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541; or to Roweena Gear, ets, Suite 300, 1800 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. The complete report, including case studies, will be available through eric later this year.

Vol. 02, Issue 39

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
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