Saturday, February 21, 2009

What Should Be the Federal Role in Education?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act raises new questions about the role of the federal government in education. For many years, it has been axiomatic, at least among people who are running for office, that education policy decisions should be left to local school boards. Of course over the years this has become less and less true.The stimulus package, however, may cause the demise of the localization of education policy.

The first big involvement of the federal government in school was the compulsory attendance rule. I believe, and I know many who agree, that this nation became a superpower when it forced compulsory education in the 1950s. So much potential was completely untapped when so many kids were not being educated.

Special education was another huge involvement in educational policy. It is illuminating to read the legislative history of the federal special education law, first called the EHA and now called IDEA. Eight million kids with disabilities were not being appropriately educated. before Congress acted. My favorite example of how far we have come is a 1919 decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court which upholds the exclusion of a student with cerebral palsy from public school because his condition and ailment produced "... a depressing and nauseating effect upon the teachers and school children." Once again, I feel strongly that federal action was necessary.

Other federal involvements include the nutrition programs, which provide the only food some kids get, and the widely acclaimed Head Start program. A more recent, and more controversial involvement is the No Child Left Behind Act. We have certainly not yet reached consensus on NCLB. A recent poll showed roughly one-quarter of the country fits into each of the four categories: repeal it, keep it with major changes, keep it with minor changes, and keep it as it is. Now that is a lack of consensus.

The stimulus law has a lot of money for education. Previous posts have focused primarily upon the special education funding, which I think is great. But the law also contains a five billion dollar fund for education reform. This is somewhat bigger than the sixteen million dollar discretionary fund that previous education secretaries have had. Secretary Duncan plans to use the federal government as a reform agent. This could well cause changes in special education as we know it. Here is a news article.

How do you feel about the role of the federal government in education?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I believe the question of the federal government's role in education is complicated and quite difficult to pin down. Most of the time, the issue seems to be viewed and discussed through the lens of particular interventions.

    For example, someone with my views on education policy might be tempted to say that the IDEA's requirement that all students receive a FAPE, and the failures of states to provide the majority of disabled students with meaningful educational opportunities prior to its enactment shows that education is properly the province of the federal government.

    On the other hand, they might say that the NCLB's requirements for state assessments, specifically its refusal to allow states to continue to use holistic, individualized, portfolio type assessments, which I believe have the potential to be far more accurate than prevailing standardized tests, particularly with respect to disabled students, shows that the federal government should stay out of education, and has no business dictating how students are evaluated.

    I think its clear that the federal government has an important role in public education, but its hard for me to pin down exactly what I believe that role should be. It may be somewhat shortsighted, but at the moment, I have to say that I feel that there are many specific issues in educational policy that are more important than the abstract question of the federal government's role. In other words, even if I was to conclude that, considered in isolation, the federal government's role in education should be limited, I would still support federal mandates that were in keeping with my views on educational policy.

  3. Joanthan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    I agree that the question is not easily nswered.