Curriculum Initiatives Often Seen Occupying Murky Federal Waters

By Jessica Portner — June 25, 1997 10 min read
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Come summer, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a batch of grants to schools to help them acquire materials that foster students’ appreciation of the environment.

Already this year, the Department of Agriculture has doled out $10 million to 23,000 schools to teach “Team Nutrition,” a curriculum designed to help elementary students learn healthy eating habits.

And the Department of Health and Human Services is set to disperse millions of dollars for sex education programs that promote abstinence until marriage.

Curriculum initiatives are tumbling out of nearly every agency in the Clinton administration. Washington, in fact, allocates more than $100 million a year to curriculum-related education programs, according to federal estimates.

Critics argue that federal advocacy of a particular course of study amounts to unwelcome meddling into local matters--and, in some cases, may even constitute a breach of the law. But many inside and outside government say a steady stream of financial incentives to use certain classroom materials is appropriate and can yield important educational benefits.

Such academic inducements are hardly novel. Though the federal government is barred from dictating specific curricula, nearly all recent presidents, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, have managed to put their fingerprints on classroom learning.

The involvement runs the gamut from offering schools a grab bag of complimentary booklets and helpful hints to providing states and districts with grants to adopt specific government-approved programs. In addition, Washington gives grants to various types of organizations to design specific curricular materials, which, in turn, they market to schools.

Such federal action can influence the curriculum market. The majority of drug education programs currently available for schools to purchase, for example, have been financed at least in part, by the federal government.

But unlike the strong-arm tactics that Washington has been accused of using on occasion, such as threatening to withhold aid if states do not pass laws forcing the expulsion of students who carry weapons to school, federal attempts to influence curricula carry no direct punitive measures. Instead, the administrations dangle grant money in front of districts and states and let them decide whether to reach for it.

And more often than not, there are no strings attached to the largess, making it especially appealing to schools.

Interpreting the Law

Several legal prohibitions bar the federal government from requiring that instructional materials be mandated in schools.

When Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979, establishing the department as a Cabinet-level agency, it constrained the new agency from exercising any control over curriculum. Critics of a federal Education Department were concerned that its powers would go unchecked in the classroom without an explicit restraint on curricular intervention.

Though the 1979 law bars only the Education Department from prescribing coursework, a law dating to 1965 restricts “any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States ... from exercising control over curriculum.”

Legal counsels for several government departments contend that this earlier law, the General Education Provisions Act, was intended to apply exclusively to the then-commissioner of education. But others, such as Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and an assistant secretary of education under President Bush, says the 1965 law seems to apply to the entire federal government.

In any case, many federal agencies, such as the EPA and HHS, have separate legal checks, government officials say.

Federal agencies lack the authority to order schools to adopt curricula unless Congress authorizes the agencies to do so, according to Steve Pressman, a lawyer with the EPA.

But legal experts doubt that Congress could get away with such a fiat, especially if it prescribed curricula without proper funding, said Gwendolyn Gregory, the deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Constitutional Ban

The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Washington from interfering in areas that are traditionally state affairs, said Ms. Gregory, though, of course, it has strayed into the states’ province on occasion. If a district needed legal grounds against federal intrusion into curriculum, she said, “they would have plenty of ammunition.”

So far, no administration has violated these prohibitions, according to Ted Sky, a senior counsel for the Education Department. As long as the federal aid is not coercive--for example, schools are not compelled to teach a particular course--it’s legal, he said.

Built-In Flexibility

Most of the grant programs, such as one administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, give schools lots of flexibility. The endowment recently awarded a community arts association in Los Angeles $200,000 to write and implement a multicultural arts education curriculum in local secondary schools. Schools, however, can take it or leave it.

For more than a decade, the Education Department has fostered the formulation of various drug education curricula, particularly the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which is now the most widely used in the country.

“No state or school district is required to apply for the money,” Mr. Sky said.

But just because no one has ever filed a complaint against the federal government claiming that it violated any law or constitutional ban doesn’t mean the spirit of the measure hasn’t been compromised, some experts argue.

“There’s a clear prohibition that the federal government can’t directly endorse or promote curriculum, but everybody skirts it,” contended Ms. Ravitch. In particular, she eschews the government’s aggressive marketing tactics.

The federal government circumvents the law with grants that are made contingent on teaching specific material, regulatory provisos, technical assistance, and free samples, argued Chester E. Finn Jr., the John M. Olin fellow at the Hudson Institute and an assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. “Most people say that providing information is a legitimate federal function, but they also think that the federal government should not dictate what schools teach,” he said. “But in between is a vast gray area.”

A History of Tinkering

Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been exploiting this murky middle ground for decades, largely to complement a national political agenda.

In 1958, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, which funneled $1 billion in grants and loans to schools and colleges to improve mathematics and science curriculum, according to Gordon Hoxie, the founder of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York City. The retired Army general saw the initiative--adopted after the Soviet Union alarmed Americans with its 1957 launch of Sputnik 1--as a matter of national security.

Presidential historians credit the 34th president with being the first American chief executive to advance a large-scale curriculum program. Nearly every president since has backed curriculum proposals, though on a much smaller scale, Mr. Hoxie said. “It’s sort of like mother’s love,” he remarked. “They’re all for it.”

But while these proposals often appeal to national politicians, some state and local leaders have been less enthusiastic about them. Last year, Gov. George F. Allen rejected a $6.7 million grant to draft academic standards in Virginia under President Clinton’s Goals 2000 program. The Republican governor argued that acceptance of the grant would have given the federal government too much leverage over state policy.

“From our perspective, what we were concerned about was the issue of the federal government interfering with local school systems’ ability to develop curriculum that is appropriate for its own schools,” Beverly H. Sgro, Virginia’s education secretary, said. Congress later amended the legislation, allowing states to use all the Goals 2000 money for school technology projects.

But Goals 2000 was just the most recent lightning rod for the debate over federal involvement in curriculum.

In the early 1970s, the National Science Foundation, a federal agency chartered by Congress, promoted a curriculum called “Man: A Course of Study,” an anthropological course for 5th and 6th graders that focused on human development. Scores of schools adopted the curriculum, but the course soon aroused public and congressional concerns about specific units, particularly sections that focused on the lifestyle of the Netsilik Eskimos. These “materials are full of references to adultery, cannibalism, trial marriage, wife swapping. ... This is simply not the kind of material Congress or any federal agency should be marketing with taxpayers’ money,” said then-Rep. John B. Conlan, a Republican from Arizona during a 1975 House debate. The controversy ultimately provided fodder for legislators to curb the government’s curricular powers a few years later when they created the Education Department.

State Involvement

Whether coercive or not, federal influence in curriculum can also be a force in the education publishing market, according to Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. For example, critics of the voluntary national history standards, which were underwritten by federal grants, claim the new generation of social studies textbooks are heavily colored by the guidelines.

“We don’t have a government ministry that publishes official curriculum and controls it like the French do,” Mr. Kirst said. But as the federal government tries to increase its influence, groups that oppose the government-backed materials often respond by designing education products of their own, he said.

Many former government leaders stress, however, that federal aid in promoting curricula can be extremely beneficial.

“Put aside the issue of whether that is entirely wise; it’s a good way to go,” said Jack Watson, a former chief of staff under President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Watson said that although it’s important to be careful about infringing on local control, such financial incentives often help eliminate the regional disparities that districts face when implementing education reforms.

But Carl Kaestle, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, argues that Washington’s financial inducements, however worthy, often have a dubious effect. Legislation advanced in 1975 by President Gerald R. Ford that provided districts with money to teach metric conversion hasn’t changed the nation’s standard of measurement, for example, Mr. Kaestle said.

“We need to attend to the central role of schools and not keep throwing money around for a smorgasbord of curriculum,” he said.

But education observers say that federal involvement in school curriculum pales in comparison with the state role in shaping what students learn. While states have long had the legal authority to dictate subject matter, the practice has intensified in recent years, largely as a result of their attempt to raise academic standards, they say.

“All this federal stuff is phony baloney. The real shift is at the state level,” said John F. Jennings, a former general counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee when it was under the Democrats’ control.

States are often resistant to federal intervention because they want to be free to tinker with the classroom lessons themselves, Mr. Jennings asserted.

Last year, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York ordered public schools to teach students that the Irish potato famine of 1845-50 was a historical abuse of human rights that should be taught alongside lessons on the Holocaust and slavery. (“State Journal,” Oct. 23, 1996.)

States often dream up courses that have a regional flavor as well. In Wisconsin, Mr. Kaestle said, there’s a law that says children must be educated about the virtues of dairy products.

But the debates between educators and politicians at the state level are relatively subdued compared with the worry that federal involvement in curriculum evokes.

Earlier this month, several states--usually eager to snap up federal funds--balked at a provision in the new federal welfare law that earmarks $250 million over five years for states to teach students to abstain from sex until marriage. (“Funding To Urge Sexual Abstinence Ignites Debate,” June 11, 1997.)

Under the guidelines, states that accept these grants are prohibited from teaching about contraceptive use, which contradicts many states’ existing sex education policies. As a result, several states plan to use the money for after-school activities instead. Wyoming plans to reject the money altogether, though, telling the government, in effect, don’t fence us in.

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