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The Role of Congress in Education Policy

By Charles Barone & Elizabeth DeBray — May 02, 2012 6 min read
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The third in a five-part series

A practical look at the education laws established by Congress over the past half-century shows three things that Congress is uniquely positioned to do well: promote equal educational opportunity, set goals and keep score, and invest in research and development. Further historical reflection also shows that Congress has two significant limitations: an inability to respond quickly and a limited capacity to monitor and enforce.

Over the past 50 years, Congress has enacted sweeping changes to federal law when a segment of U.S. society was judged as having been denied equal educational opportunity, and when states and municipalities were unable or unwilling to remedy those inequities. Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to equalize the educational opportunities available to poor and minority children. Title IX of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, as amended in 1972, banned sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA, granted the right to a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. Pell Grants, established in 1965, expanded access to postsecondary education for millions of low-income students.

Title I, for example, by far the largest federal K-12 education program, tracks with several notable outcomes over its 47-year history. Overall, it has provided additional resources for disadvantaged groups and has paralleled growth in student achievement and narrowed achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers. (Although some observers believe there have been serious negative instructional consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing and accountability model. We, the authors, disagree with each other on this point.) Because of amendments to the ESEA in 2001 (the No Child Left Behind edition of the law), the cumulative shift in Title I education dollars to the neediest 20 percent of children in the highest-poverty schools was $6.5 billion over the subsequent 10 years. Put in local terms, that’s a lot of bake sales.

See Also

Read the entire five-part series of essays adapted for Education Week from the recently published book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit. Writers include Charles Barone, Larry Berger, Chester E. Finn Jr., Andrew Rudalevige, and Marshall S. Smith.

While Title I has shown that Congress is able to promote more equal educational opportunities for all, it’s still unclear whether Congress has the capacity to ensure that all of its education policies are implemented as intended. Given that it is setting policy for tens of millions of schoolchildren, Congress must rely on fairly blunt legislative instruments. With laws that follow clear, bright lines—like funding formulas or investments in pilot programs—Congress is generally able to achieve its aims. But on vaguer policies or those that require micromonitoring of districts and schools, it tends to fall short.

Congress is deliberately hamstrung by the separation of powers under the U.S. Constitution. For example, in the late 1990s, Congress passed a law requiring schools of education to report the passing rates of their graduates on teacher-licensing exams.

The Clinton administration gave in to political pressure, defied congressional intent, and set the regulation in such a way that education schools could game their numbers. More than 90 percent of the schools now report a misleading 100 percent passing rate.

While the federal government has limited bandwidth to set micropolicy in the area of standards and assessments, professional development, and school turnarounds, it does not have the human resources or technological capacity to monitor the details of education policies in 100,000 schools, even if the executive branch wanted to do so.

So what does this mean for the looming reauthorization of the ESEA? We see two key trends. The first is the increased polarization between parties, a macrochange affecting not just education but all issues. The second, particular to K-12 education, is the emerging splits within parties.

While Title I has shown that Congress is able to promote more-equal educational opportunities for all, it’s still unclear whether Congress has the capacity to ensure that all of its education policies are implemented as intended."

Over the past two decades, each of the two parties in Congress has become more ideologically cohesive. As a result, party leaders have assumed more control over issues and agendas, and the power of committees and individual rank-and-file members has decreased. This means that there is often less room for dissent by individual members to affect legislation or for members to vote their consciences when their views veer from the party line.

Historically, many Republicans have supported robust and dynamic federal education reforms. However, after eight years of Republican leadership under President George W. Bush, who believed in a strong federal role in education, the pendulum of power in the Republican Party inside the Beltway has swung toward a much more limited federal role. House Republicans owe this split in large part to their takeover in 2010 by Tea Party groups. The fact that Tea Party activists were able to defeat Republican incumbents across the ideological spectrum in 2010 primaries is likely to make those who believe in even a modest federal role cautious about voting accordingly.

Republicans outside Washington see things somewhat differently. More recent federal policies, such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top intitiative, have been embraced by high-profile outside-the-Beltway Republicans like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. They also have the support of Republican-leaning groups at the federal level such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So far in the 112th Congress, inside-the-Beltway Republicans have prevailed, even though paradoxically they have ignored the views of state and local leaders in the name of state rights and local control.

Traditionally, congressional Democrats took their cues from the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the single biggest source of donations to their campaigns. There are now, however, two wings in the Democratic Party on education reform, and they differ on the mechanisms by and pace at which reform should take place. During the 2008 election season, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., characterized this as a split between “incrementalists” and “disrupters.” Dianne Piché, a leading civil rights attorney, described it as a “fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”

This intraparty split emerged in 2008 when congressional Democrats attempted to suspend the accountability provisions of the ESEA. Democratic leaders in Congress assumed there was wide consensus within the party to do so. But civil rights groups upended those assumptions. Virtually every major civil rights group in the country rose up to oppose the amendment. We saw a similar effort vis-à-vis the ESEA markup by the Senate Democrats’ Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last year and the ESEA markup by the House Republicans’ Education and the Workforce Committee earlier this year.

The ESEA may, ultimately, present an opportunity for the next president to build a coalition of reformist Democrats and those Republicans who are generally supportive of some federal role in education reform, particularly in areas where Congress has shown the ability to be effective. But the other, increasingly more likely scenario is an alliance of incrementalist Democrats and states-rights Republicans advocating for a substantial scaling-back of federal requirements that have engendered positive change.

We believe the interests of students, and our nation as a whole, are most likely to be advanced if Congress ignores partisan politics and balances intraparty interests so that it can make policy in those areas—safeguarding and advancing equality of educational opportunity, setting goals and keeping score, and investing in research and development—where it has historically made the most dramatic and most positive difference.

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