The Evolving Federal Role

November 17, 1999 10 min read
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It was a moment steeped in symbolism. President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas, that he once attended. Flanked by his former teacher at the school, he signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

That action, on April 11, 1965, was a watershed in the evolution of the federal role in American schooling, a turning point both in sheer dollars—by some estimates, federal K- 12 spending tripled between 1964 and 1966—and influence on districts nationwide.

“I will never do anything in my entire life, now or in the future, that excites me more, or benefits the nation I serve more ... than what we have done with this education bill,” the president proclaimed two days later in a White House ceremony.

Historians credit Johnson, himself a former teacher, and his administration with a masterful performance in navigating the legislation through Congress. “In an astonishing piece of political artistry, the Congress had passed a billion-dollar law, deeply affecting a fundamental institution of the nation, in a breathtaking 87 days,” wrote the historian and former Johnson aide Eric F. Goldman in 1968. “The House had approved it with no amendments that mattered; the Senate had voted it through literally without a comma changed.”

Today, the federal government’s involvement in precollegiate education is complex and still evolving. While many agencies run programs that assist schools and children, the U.S. Department of Education is the flagship, largely because of its stewardship of the ESEA. Even so, as much as Washington’s role has grown and spending has climbed, the federal share of funding remains small in comparison to that of states and school districts. Currently, only about 7 percent of education expenditures for schools come from federal coffers.

In securing passage of the ESEA, Johnson had capitalized on the momentum that followed his landslide victory in the 1964 election, which brought with it larger Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate—including a big increase in the number of liberals in Congress. He made federal education aid a top priority for his Great Society legislative agenda in 1965.

Many obstacles had long stood in the way of broad- based federal aid to precollegiate education: Southern lawmakers who feared it would compel them to end segregation, Roman Catholic school advocates who opposed any aid that excluded private schools, teachers’ unions that insisted that federal dollars go only to public schools, and conservatives who believed that more federal money would inevitably mean policy intrusions into what was essentially a state and local concern.

The first of those obstacles had largely been surmounted a year earlier with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other provisions, outlawed racial discrimination in schools and other institutions that received federal aid. As for the other roadblocks, the Johnson administration wove a delicate tapestry that brought unions and Catholic representatives together around an education proposal that was essentially an anti-poverty program, a critical component of the president’s War on Poverty.

While earlier proposals typically involved general aid or plans to support school construction and teacher salaries, Johnson’s solution was to abandon that approach in favor of a “categorical"—or targeted— program for Title I of the ESEA, the law’s centerpiece. Funding was aimed at concentrations of disadvantaged children, regardless of whether they attended public or private schools.

The ESEA represented “the first really direct reach into [all] school districts in the United States,” says the man charged with implementing the new law, Harold Howe II, the U.S. commissioner of education from 1965 to 1968.

The law committed the federal government to a bold new role in promoting educational equity— helping the most needy in society—that remains a central focus of federal involvement in education.

The Road to 1965

Even in the 1960s, the debate over federal support for schools was hardly a new one. From 1870 to 1890, Congress considered a variety of bills on providing general aid to schools, but none of them became law. Similar attempts to provide general federal aid continued for much of the 20th century.

That is not to say the federal government had no involvement in schools prior to 1965. In fact, the roots of the federal role predate the U.S. Constitution. The Land Ordinance of 1785 specified that proceeds from the sale of a portion of land in every township established in the Northwest Territories be set aside for public schools.

After the Civil War, the federal government required that new states admitted into the Union provide free, nonsectarian public schools. The first federal “department of education"— which was later renamed the Bureau of Education and then the U.S. Office of Education before assuming its current status—was created in 1867, just two years after the war between the states ended. By the turn of the century, the office was still largely occupied with gathering and disseminating national statistics on education.

The first significant step toward a new federal role in schooling came with passage in 1917 of the Smith-Hughes Act. The law provided the first categorical federal aid to schools; in this case, it was grants to support vocational education programs. Though historians view the law’s passage as something of a turning point, they note that it would be decades before Congress approved anything else like it.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through a few emergency measures during the Great Depression that delivered some aid to schools, most of it to be used for school construction and teacher salaries. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps and its National Youth Administration provided some money for educational purposes.

Several aid programs for areas affected by federal activities were enacted during and after World War II, beginning in 1941 with the Lanham Act, which provided federal payments in lieu of taxes to local school districts affected by the military mobilization. In 1950, two other laws were passed that provided school construction and operating-cost grants, or “impact aid,” for schools in areas where federal acquisition of property decreased local tax revenues and increased school enrollments. In fiscal 1999, impact aid funding totalled $864 million.

Separately, in 1944, Congress had enacted the GI Bill of Rights, which dramatically expanded access to higher education by helping millions of World War II veterans attend college. (“GI Bill Paved the Way for a Nation of Higher Learners,” Jan. 27, 1999.)

In 1946, the federal school lunch program was launched, followed by the school milk program in 1954. The two initiatives, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continue to subsidize meals for millions of school children nationwide.

Serving the National Interest

It was the Cold War that provided the impetus for one of the most significant steps toward more active federal involvement in schools.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the United States when it successfully launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit around the Earth. The National Defense Education Act, passed the next year, was a response to widespread concern that America had fallen behind its Communist rival in the contest for scientific, technical, and military superiority. The law provided specialized aid to improve mathematics, science, and foreign- language instruction in schools and colleges.

The act “demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, Congress could enact a major aid-to-education bill,” wrote the congressionally established Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in a 1981 report. The law proclaimed: “The national interest requires ... that the federal government give assistance to education for programs which are important to our national defense.”

In their 1968 book ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law, Stephen K. Bailey and Edith K. Mosher call the idea an “important harbinger of the kinds of federal support for American education that blossomed in the mid-1960s.” Even so, they observed that the law was fairly narrow in scope. “And even within its own limited domain, the act tended to strengthen superior and wealthier secondary schools. ... Poorer schools in the countryside and in the urban ghettos were left largely untouched.”

It was really not until President Johnson stood before his former Texas schoolhouse that federal education aid and involvement, though fixed in a targeted program, were set in place for K-12 schools on a scale comparable to today’s.

Of course, the esea was only the beginning. John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former longtime aide to congressional Democrats, argues that the 1965 law was “the landmark ... that paved the way” for an increasingly large federal presence in education policy. Laws were created over the next decade to assist various special-needs groups through the Bilingual Education Act, the Native American Education Act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and other new programs. Separately, in 1965, the Head Start program for early-childhood education was created, and the Higher Education Act was enacted.

Even so, deep philosophical differences have persisted over whether federal activism in education is wise or proper. In fact, a domestic priority for President Ronald Reagan when he took office in 1981 was to curtail sharply the federal role in education and to abolish the fledgling Department of Education. The Office of Education had been split off from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and promoted to Cabinet-level status two years earlier, during the Carter administration.

Reagan’s plan, however, never won enough support— even in the Republican-controlled Senate—to succeed. The department saw more attacks when Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress in 1995, but those efforts also failed.

President Reagan also sought to reduce federal education spending—which had climbed steadily during most of the 1960s and 1970s—and to lump large portions of aid into block grants to states. Ultimately, funding did drop somewhat in inflation-adjusted dollars in the early 1980s, but the trend has been reversed in recent years. Although some consolidation of programs occurred in 1981, the underpinnings of the esea and other major K-12 programs enacted since 1965 remained intact.

It was during the Reagan years, some observers say, that the federal government’s “bully pulpit” role in encouraging educational improvements came into its own. The signal event was the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, the report of a commission created by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, which helped drive a movement to improve schools and spurred a national dialogue on education standards.

Many observers also point to the 1989 “education summit” in Charlottesville, Va., as a pivotal moment. President George Bush and the nation’s governors—including one of the most influential participants, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas—agreed to set national education goals. In 1994, with Clinton now in the White House, Congress passed his Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which provided federal aid to help states devise their own academic standards, define achievement, and create aligned assessments to measure progress toward their academic goals. The same year, Congress embedded the standards-based reforms into the reauthorization of the ESEA.

Questions about the ESEA’s effectiveness also fueled a new emphasis on results and educational progress.

According to Marshall S. Smith, the current acting deputy secretary of education, the federal government has become increasingly aware of the need to help lead the way to better schools. “It’s a clear change in the way people thought about the use of federal finances,” he says. “It was there to leverage, to stimulate change, to support state reforms ... and still with a big focus on the poorest kids in the country.”

But Education Department programs continue to draw critics. Many Republicans, in particular, propose handing states and school districts far more flexibility in spending federal dollars as long as they demonstrate achievement gains among all students.

"[I] t is time to rethink the federal role in education,” Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in October as his committee prepared to approve such a plan. “Federal money should be focused on helping children and their schools, not on maintaining separate categorical federal programs.”

The debate serves as a gentle reminder that the federal role is not fixed. As Carl F. Kaestle, a professor of education and history at Brown University says, the federal role has grown substantially over time, “but it’s had a fairly bumpy ride and is fairly fragile.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Evolving Federal Role


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