Finding a Balance for the Federal Role in Education Policy

Editor’s note: This is the first of three blog posts based on a series of articles produced by the Brookings Institution that propose an appropriate federal role for education governance. This blog highlights the series’ preface document, co-authored by Douglas Harris, Helen Ladd, Marshall Smith and Martin West.

Speculation abounds on new priorities and the fate of current programs and policies in the U.S. Department of Education under the direction of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary. One thing is certain, there will be changes in the offing under the new administration, which is as averse to government regulation as it is inclined toward free market forces, which, in education, includes for-profit charter schools and vouchers.

Noting that much of what has been written on education policy involves where the federal government should stay out of education governance, the Brookings Institution sought to initiate a public conversation on what the federal government can and should do. The result is Memos to the President on the Future of Education Policy, a series of 12 articles written by education leaders and policymakers with diverse perspectives that are intended to make “an affirmative case for an important but limited federal role” in education policy.

The preface to the series, A principled federal role in PreK-12 education, explores the history and evolution of federal policy around public education in the period soon after the Revolutionary War. The authors begin in 1791 with ratification of the Tenth Amendment, which gave states jurisdiction over all powers not reserved for the federal government in the U.S. Constitution, including education, and continues to current programs aimed at providing equal access to quality education for all students regardless of race, income, gender, ethnicity, language, and immigration status.

The civil rights movement has been a major force in periods of heightened federal involvement. The U.S. Supreme Court ushered in this era with its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. A decade later, driven by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s bold vision for a “Great Society,” Congress approved two unprecedented pieces of legislation: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed in 1965 by the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

A supporting role

The fundamental question in this and the other papers is what can the federal government do to encourage and support states and districts in their work to improve learning for all students? The authors derived a common set of four proactive principles, which recommend that the federal government should:

  1. ensure that no student is denied the right to equal educational opportunity based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or other protected status;
  2. provide compensatory funding to facilitate access to educational opportunity for high-need students, including, but not limited to, students living in poverty and students with disabilities;
  3. support education research and development, and the gathering and dissemination of information about the scope and quality of the nation’s education system, to inform policy and practice at the state and local levels; and
  4. in a manner consistent with both its unique advantages and limited capacity, support the development and conditions to promote continuous improvement of state and local education systems.

The overall message here is that the federal government has the responsibility to insure the right to a free and high quality education for all K-12 students by protecting their civil rights and by providing resources for the most in need, using public data and high quality research, and by providing support and infrastructure for schools, districts, and states to help them continuously improve in their work.

That’ll do it

The paper does not recommend a huge increase in funding for education. Given the discord over federal involvement in public education, it may seem like Capitol Hill has a controlling interest in school financing. Yet, the federal share of total school funding is a sliver – about 10 percent of the more than $600 billion spent annually on public elementary and secondary schools. The bulk of that is designated for equal access to education through two pieces of legislation: Title I, part of President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides funds to schools to provide additional resources and academic services for poor students; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted in 1975 to support special education.

It wasn’t until a quarter century later, when President George W. Bush signed the reauthorization of ESEA, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, that the federal government would assert itself so deeply in local education policy. President Obama’s policies continued to support this. In reaction, many states objected to what they viewed as onerous accountability demands in the law and, in December 2015, Congress reduced the federal reach into education with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the most recent incarnation of ESEA.

Understanding the limits of the federal role in education is as important as acknowledging its beneficial actions. “The federal government is poorly positioned to dictate the details of state and local efforts to improve their schools,” write the authors. They also point out that strict accountability regulations based solely on test scores did little to improve student achievement and may have had the unintended consequence of inducing “educators to focus on compliance over student success.”