Federal Education Programs: The Politics of Reform

When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space in 1957, reactions among political leaders in the United States ran the gamut from outrage to indifference. Governor Averell Harriman of New York, arguing that the American scientific community lacked sufficient financial and other support, remarked, “To me it is shocking that a backward nation, which, as I know, was far behind us at the end of the war, has now caught up and apparently surpassed us in the vital field of outer space and missile development.” On the other hand, Senator Jacob Javits, also of New York, maintained that there had been no race between the United States and Russia to launch a satellite and that to create one in response to the Soviet satellite launch would be “directly contrary to our policy.” Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana kicked it up a notch. “What is at stake in all this is nothing less than survival,” he said, adding that this latest achievement by the Soviet Union “should not be tossed off lightly by the White House,” then occupied by President Dwight Eisenhower. Within a year, the U.S. Congress had passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). In addition to significantly expanding federal support for higher education, the bill called for improvements in science, math, and foreign language programs at the elementary and secondary level. Ultimately, NDEA served as a major source of educational loans that enabled thousands of Americans to go to college. It was the most comprehensive federal education legislation ever passed--aimed directly at increasing U.S. competitiveness during the Cold War Era.

Like the debate over Sputnik, disagreements over federal education policy are wide-ranging and, in some cases, politically charged. And, although there is universal agreement over the importance of educating the millions of students in our nation’s public schools, there is ample debate over how much the federal government should spend, how that money should be spent, and what the federal government’s role should be in shaping education policy.

Federal Education Legislation

The history of federal education policy reads like a primer on party politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and a growing recognition of the importance of civil rights expanded education legislation at the federal level. In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Title I of that bill serves as the foundation for programs to fund schools serving a high percentage of low-income students. ESEA also led to the creation of the National Diffusion Network, which promoted and funded substantial education innovations in the nation’s schools from 1975-1995--programs that achieved measurable results. Funding for the National Diffusion Network ended with the introduction of federal budget-cutting initiatives of the 1990s under the Republican Party’s Contract with America. But Title I is still in place, and ESEA has been reauthorized every five years since 1970. As a result, ESEA remains the primary piece of federal legislation governing federal spending on education--and, ultimately, governing federal involvement in education reform. In 2001, ESEA was amended and rebranded as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and signed into law in January 2002 under the Bush administration. On March 13, 2011, the Obama administration released its blueprint for revising the ESEA--and overhauling the education policies embraced in No Child Left Behind.

In addition to legislation promoting policies aimed at improving the education system, federal legislation has also focused on expanding access to education--for the disabled, minorities, women, low-income groups, and immigrants. Today, in addition to ESEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a major source of federal education funding. IDEA’s predecessor, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was originally passed in 1975. In addition to ESEA and IDEA, there are scores of programs and initiatives that make federal funds available to improve education for specific groups of students including the Early Learning Challenge Fund, Reading First, and English-language instruction programs. “Throughout history, the United States has broadened educational opportunities for the less fortunate,” writes Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), in a February 7, 2011 article entitled “Get the Federal Government Out of Education? That Wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ Vision.” The article continues, “After the Civil War, the federal government helped create public schools for freed slaves. After great waves of immigration of the early 20th century, vocational programs provided job training for newcomers. In the 1950s, federal courts moved to expand educational opportunity, and in the 1960s, Congress broadened civil rights, economic opportunities, and improvements in schooling. African-American adults and children benefited as did women and girls who gained from Title IX, which opened up educational and sports opportunities. As a result, the achievement gap narrowed between adolescent white and black students. And the percentage of children with disabilities who attended public school rose from only 20 percent in 1970 to 95 percent in 2007.”

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, his administration strongly opposed expanding federal funding and in fact even contemplated abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. From 1981 to 1986, federal funding for education actually decreased as a percentage of total spending from 7.4 to 6.4 percent, but President Reagan did commission a study that significantly influenced education policy--the National Commission on Excellence in Education. With the release of the commission’s findings in 1983, the issue of U.S. competitiveness--like that embodied in the Sputnik debate that had sparked the education legislation of 1958--reared its head again. The 1983 report--A Nation at Risk--raised the specter that the United States would fall behind in a global economy, and countries like Japan could in fact surpass the United States. The report’s opening was dramatic: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” The 1983 commission reported that

  • an estimated 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States could be considered functionally illiterate and that functional illiteracy among minority youth was as high as 40 percent;
  • average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests was “lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched”;
  • there had been a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.

In response, education reformers proposed the creation of a common core curriculum, academic standards, and strong accountability systems. Building on these efforts and ideas, President George H. W. Bush convened the nation’s governors in September 1989 for the inaugural National Education Summit. The governors, led by then-Governor Bill Clinton, established an ambitious agenda entitled America 2000. By the year 2000

  • all children in America would start school ready to learn;
  • the high school graduation rate would increase to at least 90 percent;
  • American students would leave grades four, eight, and twelve having  demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. In addition, every school in America would ensure that all students learned to use their minds well, so that they could be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy;
  • U.S. students would be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement;
  • every adult American would be literate and would possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;
  • every school in America would be free of drugs and violence and would offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

Although the goals of America 2000 were not achieved, the 1989 education summit set the stage for an increasing emphasis on accountability and standards-based education reform, opening the way for the major overhaul of ESEA proposed by President George W. Bush in 2001--No Child Left Behind. The law set standards for educational attainment by individual students, requiring any state that receives federal funding to develop assessment tests that must be administered at the fourth and eighth grade levels. The act did not, however, set a national achievement standard--that was left up to the states. Students were expected to achieve proficiency by 2014 as measured by those state standards. And the debate began.

No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a milestone in federal education reform. As a result of the bill Congress supported huge increases in funding for elementary and secondary education. In addition, by making academic standard setting and assessment testing a condition for receiving federal education dollars, NCLB expanded federal influence in the area of student testing. It also focused on improving results among low-income students. States were required to break down performance data by four student subgroups: economically disadvantaged, minority, English-language learners, and special education students. This approach was seen by many as one of the strongest elements of NCLB. In the past, state accountability systems generally looked at the overall performance of a school, without measuring the performance of subgroups of students. Many education reformers believed such systems hid the achievement gaps that persisted between different groups of students. But the bill also included sanctions against schools that do not make progress against standards set by states under NCLB. Here’s how the New York Times characterizes those sanctions on its website under Times Topics: “Schools that fail to make the required annual progress, whether overall or for subgroups, face a mounting scale of sanctions, from being required to provide tutoring to students in poor-performing schools to the threat of state takeovers or the shutting down of individual schools.”

From its beginnings, discussions over NCLB were plagued by conflict. While everyone seemed to agree with the basic concept of attempting to increase education standards, the bill was controversial for a number of reasons. Some conservatives opposed it as an expansion of the federal government’s role in education. Some education reformers criticized the punitive approach of imposing sanctions on “failing” schools, which, in some cases, are schools that face the greatest challenges and have the fewest resources--particularly those struggling with large low-income populations. Others raised a common criticism of any standardized testing system--that it encourages educators to teach to the test, focusing on skills that will raise test scores instead of taking a broader approach to develop thinking skills and help children learn. Finally, there were those who argued that the goals set out in NCLB were simply too ambitious and unrealistic.

In the end, the results themselves proved to be NCLB’s undoing. On December 17, 2010, the Center on Education Policy released a report on the results of NCLB titled “How Many Schools and Districts Have Not Made Adequate Yearly Progress? Four Year Trends.” The report found that fully “one-third (33%) of the nation’s schools did not make adequate yearly progress in 2009” and that “this was an increase from 29 percent in 2006, but a decrease from the high point of 35 percent in 2008.” According to the New York Times, “In October 2009, the latest results on the most important nationwide math test--the National Assessment of Educational Progress--showed that student achievement grew faster during the years before the No Child Left Behind law, when states dictated most education policy. Scores increased only marginally for eighth graders and not at all for fourth graders, continuing a sluggish six-year trend of slowing achievement growth since passage of the law.”

In 2011, as the U.S. government embarks on the next ESEA reauthorization and revisions to NCLB, politics will likely play a major role in the outcome. According to ESEA Reauthorization: NCLB and the Blueprint, released by the U.S. Department of Education in March 2011, which compares NLCB with the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform, the new plan would retain some of the key elements of the original NCLB--including the focus on equity, standards-based reform and accountability, and improving academic performance across the student population by continuing to break down test results by student subgroups such as low-income students and English-language learners. But it also focuses on addressing some of the key shortcomings of the older legislation. For example, under NCLB, schools that were not making progress were classified as “failing.” The new plan calls for differentiating schools based on student growth and progress rather than attainment of a specific level of achievement. Instead of sanctions, the program proposes to provide “real rewards for high-poverty schools, districts and states showing real progress, especially in serving underserved populations and closing achievement gaps.” Whereas NCLB focused almost exclusively on assessment tests, the Blueprint calls for the development and use of better assessment--and looking beyond assessment to measures such as attendance, conditions for learning, and course completion to “paint a fuller picture of a school.” Moreover, the Blueprint proposes to promote “meaningful change in persistently low-performing schools,” by allowing more flexibility in setting standards at a local level and making “meaningful investments” in low-income and low-performing schools.

According to a January 15, 2011 Associated Press story entitled “Obama’s Education Focus Faces Big Hurdles,” the Democratic president faces a significant challenge in an environment where Republicans--many of whom would “prefer a series of small measures to a broad rewrite of NCLB, as they are wary of another giant bill”--make up a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. A host of interest groups--including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Schools Boards--have a stake in the debate. These groups have pressed for much-needed revisions to NCLB, and while they support many of the new plan’s broad principles, they oppose specific elements of President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform. The Center on Education Policy has been tracking education progress against NCLB objectives for the past decade. According to a December 2010 article—“The Policy and Politics of Rewriting the Nation’s Main Education Law”--written by Jack Jennings of CEP, “Renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2011 will be particularly challenging. The issues are difficult and the politics tricky. To succeed, the President will have to make ESEA a high-priority issue, Republicans will have to make an exception to their general policy of opposing President Obama, and national education organizations and newer reform groups will have to support compromises. The nation needs a new education law. In the eight years since NCLB was enacted, we have learned a lot, and new issues have arisen. We simply cannot tolerate two years of political deadlock before we again address the country’s need to improve its schools.” The outcome remains uncertain. And, as of April 2011, federal education policy--and the future of America’s schools--is in political limbo.


Web Resources

U.S. Department of Education1
Up-to-date news and information on federal education policies and programs, including ESEA Reauthorization: A Blueprint for Reform, the Obama administration’s plan for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), released on March 13, 2011.

U.S. Department of Education/Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE)2
For a comprehensive list of the federal education programs administered by the OESE.

Center on Education Policy3
Research on public education and federal education programs.

1 www.ed.gov/
2 www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oese/programs.html
3 www.cep-dc.org/index.cfm?DocumentTopicID=6

See related article in Issues in Public Education, “How Schools Are Funded.”

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