Balance of Power

Rethinking the Federal Government's Role in Education

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Many ambitious federal education programs began in the 1960s, the "Great Society" era, when Americans generally viewed government as benign and trustworthy. Today, however, most citizens want government off their backs, leaving individuals--not bureaucrats--with control of the purse strings.

What, then, is the appropriate federal role in education? One cannot ignore the history behind federal programs: When left to themselves, many states historically ignored the education of their most disadvantaged and disabled students. Yet, neither can one afford to overlook the desire of Americans today to downsize and decentralize government. Critics view the U.S. Department of Education and all of its programs--rightly or wrongly--as frivolous at best and intrusive at worst.

Beyond these questions of philosophy, there is the strictly financial argument. Although the federal government typically funds only a small fraction of a district's budget, that small fraction makes a difference, especially in these tight budget times. States are glad to accept federal money; the fewer the strings attached, the better. But should the federal government's role in these programs be reduced simply to that of a benefactor?

The idea of block grants, with the federal government acting as fiscal agent for education dollars and leaving all decisionmaking up to the states, has ebbed and flowed in the 104th Congress. Should the federal government have ultimate authority, or should the states? Are states up to the challenge of doling out dollars equitably? As one writer, a Title I coordinator from Washington state, says, the Department of Education serves as their conscience. Although the regulations and documentation are daunting, she says, they serve their purpose if they keep states and districts spending money on those students most in need.

Another writer points out that the federal government's role as a "bully pulpit" for education and children's issues "should not be underestimated. What happens at a federal level matters" in education policy.

Education has elbowed its way into the domestic limelight. This week, governors and business executives from 44 states will meet for two days to discuss their states' agendas for workforce preparation and education. And as the field of presidential candidates narrows to two, the philosophical questions of the appropriate size of government will only become more pronounced.

This special Commentary report, one in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

Vol. 15, Issue 27, Page 39

Published in Print: March 27, 1996, as Balance of Power
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