Federal Role in Education

2012-02-01 22:44:16 by admin

According to a time honored but naive notion, educational policies are fashioned by local school boards, operating independently in the thousands of school districts throughout America. This notion is based on the folklore of local control. (Fischer, 1982, p. 56)

From the first federal land ordinances of the 1780s through major judicial decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and George W. Bush’s 2001 promise to leave no child behind, the federal government has intervened in state and local educational affairs by outlining and implementing policies, programs, and laws that have significantly impacted the landscape of education in America. Moreover, while many have debated the amount of control the federal government should have in the education of the nation’s children, its role has unquestionably expanded over time.

This entry provides an overview of the changing Federal Role in Education. It begins with the legislative branch, highlighting key policies as well as strategies used to increase compliance. Next, it examines the work of the judicial branch, noting that while Supreme Court decisions have often resulted in important consequences for America’s educational system, the interplay and interdependency between judicial and legislative action has been critical. Subsequently, the entry examines initiatives of the executive branch that have marked shifts in the control or influence of the federal government in state and local educational policy and practice. Finally, it considers the significance of the growth and varied interest and involvement of the federal government in K–12 education.

Looking at Legislation

The founders of the American republic emphasized the importance of an educated citizenry. With a Kantian bent towards saving the general public from their “crude state of nature,” many of America’s first leaders believed that education was paramount to the success of the new republic. Leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison espoused what they believed to be a direct correlation between education and the economic development of the country. Madison himself, during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, supported the creation of a national university; however, the remaining delegates were fearful of a central government possessing too much control over the nation’s educational offerings. This same concern precluded the mention of education during the framing of the Constitution. The founders settled for a dual federalism in which powers would be divided between the states and federal government, leaving education primarily a state concern. Madison and other similar thinkers were desirous of a clear delineation between federal and state powers. The founders sought a separation that would respect the fact that state and federal agencies were designed for different purposes.

The early avoidance of a strong federal government set the tone for an American educational system that granted states and local education agencies primary control over their educational systems. Even so, public education has never entirely become a state or local matter. Early in the country’s history, the federal government asserted its interest in education by enacting a series of policies granting land to territories and states for educational purposes. The Land Ordinance of 1785, for example, helped facilitate the westward movement of settlers by enticing families with the promise that public schools would be provided for every township they encountered. The subsequent Land Ordinance of 1787, known as the Northwest Ordinance, flexed the federal government’s might by mandating that any territory wanting to become a state had to have an education provision in its basic law.

Almost a century later, Congress passed the first of the Morrill acts, which like the two land ordinances previously implemented set a supportive tone for education by providing land in an effort to boost educational offerings. The Morrill Act transferred land rights to each state with the promise that colleges would be built to address the country’s leaders’ desire to accelerate its knowledge within the agriculture and engineering fields.

Societal shifts from the early 1900s through the devastating crash of the stock market significantly changed how the federal government asserted itself in the realm of educational policy. Previously, the federal government supported education with broad distribution of monies. The government then altered its methods of giving general money and land offerings towards a categorical approach addressing targeted needs or desires. These categorical programs addressed the specific interests deemed worthy of federal funding. The Smith Hughes Act of 1917 addressed issues such as vocational education, while the Defense Education Act of 1958 addressed support for math, science, and foreign language instruction. It was during this increased period of categorical aid that the heated debate between big and small government reached a new intensity.

Federal policy typically works on the margins of state and local education, requiring incremental changes to educational programs and practices. It is also constrained by its limited authority and its relatively minor expenditures on education. When addressing public education, the federal government often resorts to policies of compliance or assistance. Compliance involves the use of financial sanctions to influence state and local governments in policy implementation. As a result, the success of compliance strategies tends to be dependent on how high the stakes are that are attached to the policy. Assistance involves the provision of financial or technical expertise in implementing a policy. In recent years, in particular, the federal government has used its fiscal resources to leverage compliance with national directives in multiple policy areas. Both compliance and assistance strategies, regardless of how well planned, can be undermined by a variety of factors, from shifts in the economy to policy misinterpretations.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was developed with both compliance and assistance strategies. Although it was not developed specifically to centralize education at the federal level, it was designed to change the role of the federal government in education. President Lyndon B. Johnson and members of the ESEA reform coalition viewed ESEA as a mechanism for funneling support from state and local agencies to target groups of students, particularly those considered educationally or financially disadvantaged. They employed the strategy of federal financial inducements to influence state and local participation. Thus, the federal government asserted its involvement in local schools, but in a way that offered some flexibility as to how Title I programs would be developed. This expansion of federal policy (which involved a long-term strategy for increasing the competence, responsiveness, and flexibility of state and local entities) into state and local governments epitomized President Johnson’s optimism that the War on Poverty could be won with strong federal government involvement.

The Influence of Judicial Action

Education programs initiated by the federal government, both those that have been embraced and those that have been repudiated, have stoked the historical wrangling between supporters of an increased Federal Role in Education and those who wish to see local education free from the interference of “big government.” The expansion of judicial activity in educational policy issues, interestingly, is derived in large measure from the expansion of federal educational legislation. As the legislative branch sought to alter state and local priorities, the responsibility of the federal courts expanded. According to Louis Fischer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the primary reasons for such involvement include ambiguous language in the Constitution and laws; failure of federal, state, or local officials to obey laws; the evolution of the law and its application due to social change; and the larger role of courts in recent times.

The courts have ruled on issues such as racial desegregation, Bilingual Education, financial equality, the education of students with disabilities, teacher quality, Locker Searches, and the use of standardized tests. In many cases, the courts have become involved in interpreting unsettled political and societal debates in education, decisions that earlier might have been considered unfit for adjudication. This section provides a thumbnail sketch of several federal judicial decisions that played a role in increasing the role of the federal government in state and local education.

In the early 1900s, the federal government’s role in education was still considered “hands-off.” This is illustrated by the 1925 Supreme Court decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which determined that a state could not keep a child from attending an adequate private school. Yet, by the beginning of the 1950s, the federal government was becoming more involved in state and local education matters, particularly with regard to issues of race, gender, and the special needs of students with disabilities. All three of these issues dealt with students’ constitutional right to education, and all three of these issues, after the judicial and legislative response, completely altered the relationship between the federal government and local and state education agencies.


The early federal court cases involving race, such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), were considered to be constitutional matters of equal protection. Following numerous challenges to the Jim Crow laws of the South—led by Thurgood Marshall, who was then an attorney for the NAACP—a unanimous Supreme Court in 1954 rejected Plessy’s notion of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. According to Fischer, Brown outstrips all other judicial decisions in terms of the resulting lawsuits, court intervention, and education policy review and revision.

The South’s refusal to acknowledge Brown set into motion several unprecedented actions by the federal government. The Court’s second Brown decision, in 1955, demanded that educational officials seek a “prompt and reasonable start” (p. 300) toward compliance with Brown I, mandating that all compliance efforts proceed “with all deliberate speed” (p. 301). However, many districts, especially those in the South, continued to defy this federal mandate. As a result, President Eisenhower, under intense political pressure and understanding that “deliberate speed” was not being made, called in the National Guard in an effort to implement the desegregation rulings of the Supreme Court. Even then, the Court’s ruling failed to provide school boards and states with enough guidance (i.e., an actual plan) regarding the implementation of its ruling, and the debate shifted from issues involving desegregation toward the proper integration of public schools.

Brown’s failure to openly define why or how school officials should actively seek to integrate their campuses left lower federal courts struggling with the task of interpreting it for 14 years. Finally, in 1968, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County offered the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify the integrative intent of Brown. Green focused on a school system located in New Kent County, Virginia, where the entire student population attended one of two schools, which were segregated by race. Officials in New Kent made virtually no attempt to integrate their schools and soon found themselves on the verge of losing federal financial aid because of their lack of purposeful effort. In 1965, under the threat of a federal financial penalty, the board instituted a “freedomof- choice” plan that allowed for students to select the campus they would like to attend.

After several years of laissez-faire policy in New Kent County, the Supreme Court confronted the situation in Green. The Court determined New Kent’s policy was ineffective and at risk of causing an “intolerable delay” in the realization of the Fourteenth Amendment’s call for equal protection for all students. The Court’s new posture set a precedent in public schools by insisting upon a “unitary” status where segregation would no longer be present.

Following Green, school boards were left with deciding on a proper way to create systems where all schools could be considered unitary in status. Federal judges, looking for the logistical means to ensure the racial balance of public schools, soon decided that busing students would be necessary to overcome the de facto segregation found in many of the school districts across the nation. It was then, in 1968, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, that the plaintiff’s legal representation sought further clarification on the “realistic plan” mandated in Green.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, located in North Carolina, was composed of 107 different schools. Of those 107 schools, 21 of the campuses had student populations where 99% of their students were of color. The Court, citing that school authorities failed to provide “effective remedies,” found that district courts have the power to fashion a remedy that will ensure a unitary school. One of the remedies that the Supreme Court approved was altering school zones, requiring that some students be bused to campuses where racial diversity was not present. The Court’s willingness to intercede in local and state educational affairs helped end the delay of school integration.

Seemingly countless cases have followed in the many years since Brown, further interpreting and honing its principles. Many of these cases interlocked with larger policy issues, such as busing. This interdependency on and interaction between legislation and judicial action can also be examined through policy work regarding gender.


In the 1970s, just as America’s federal government and its school systems grappled with racial integration in public schools, they also struggled with how to attend to the overt discrimination being experienced by females within educational institutions. In 1972, when Title IX legislation was introduced, America had been primed for discussions focused upon social awareness, discrimination, and equity. Throughout public school history, discrimination against females appeared in many different forms, from overt exclusion from particular classes such as shop to the subtle discrimination delivered to females through conversations about their limited career orientations.

Title IX offered a comprehensive addendum to a bill that covered education on all levels from kindergarten to university. When Title IX was first enacted, it gave all schools and institutions six years to meet compliance standards. Moreover, as with previous federal mandates, the stick being used for compliance was the threat of the loss of federal funds. After Congress enacted Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), a body within the Department of Education, had the responsibility of developing and enforcing the regulations.

Much like the vague language found in Brown, Title IX regulations allowed local agencies to act on what they interpreted to be the law’s correct manifestations. For instance, the first section of the regulations mandated that schools and institutions designate a responsible employee and adopt a set framework for grievance procedures. These loosely enforced designations led to inept follow-through, in which a marginal effort to disseminate information regarding the requirements was put forward. This type of loose interpretation ensured that many females in public institutions, both students and employees, did not initially receive the antidiscriminatory protection they deserved under Title IX.

Initially, under Title IX an individual’s only choice for action against a discriminatory offense was to file an official complaint with the OCR. After complaints were filed, the OCR provided no possible options for financial reward. The only power available to OCR was the ability to withhold federal funds from institutions violating provisions under Title IX. After seven years of muted change under Title IX, the Supreme Court heard Cannon v. University of Chicago (1979). Cannon involved a student who alleged that her medical school application was not accepted because she was a female. Cannon created a significant shift, because Title IX enforcement became more than just the threat of federal funds being pulled; the government would now allow individuals to seek private recourse.

In 1982, in North Haven Board of Education v. Bell, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of who was to be protected under Title IX jurisdiction. North Haven was monumental in that employees had previously not been identified as protected under Title IX. In North Haven, a tenured public school teacher tried to return to her job after taking a full year of maternity leave, only to find out she was barred from doing so. The Court ruled that Title IX never excluded employees from its reach.

The still vague understanding of Title IX as an enforceable law was put to the test again in 1984 when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Grove City College v. Bell. Grove City, as a private institution, desired to preserve its autonomy from the reach of federal government by refusing to accept federal funding. Under Title IX, every institution that received federal funds was to file an official letter with the federal government stating that it was in compliance. Grove City, claiming that as an institution it did not receive federal funds, refused to sign any statement of compliance. The Court, able to highlight the fact that several of Grove City’s students received Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOG) from the government, ruled against the college, using the justification that students receiving federal funds qualified the college to fall within the purview of Title IX.

Even though this was a victory for Title IX supporters, another portion of the Grove decision facilitated a significant setback. The Grove court also determined Title IX protections to be program specific. This determination meant that as long as students were in departments that chose not to use federal funds, gender discrimination could continue without penalty, thereby leaving an entire generation of females unprotected by Title IX. Congress closed the Title IX loophole that Grove created in passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. This act ensured that as long as federal aid is distributed to any part of an educational system, compliance under Title IX is mandatory.


Federal involvement concerning the education of disabled children from the 1940s through the 1960s was minimal, with only some states distributing categorical funds to local school districts for the education of handicapped children. Very similar to the gender discrimination legislation and the desegregation legislation before that, the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) was born from a societal shift toward those issues addressing equality.

An early federal case impacting the education of those with disabilities was Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972). In a manner similar to that of an earlier case, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Pennsylvania (1971), Mills focused on the failure of the District of Columbia school district to provide publicly supported education to “exceptional” children. Mills also addressed the exclusion, suspension, expulsion, and reassignment of exceptional children without due process. The Mills case created a societal momentum toward an understanding that children with disabilities should have access to a free and appropriate education. This momentum led to the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The courts expanded the reach of Section 504, which was originally intended for individuals with disabilities in the workplace, by ensuring that children with disabilities received Equal Educational Opportunities in public schools.

The EAHCA (later the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was passed just three years after the antidiscriminatory Title IX was introduced. The EAHCA was also originally known as Public Law 94–142, indicating that it was the 142nd piece of legislation introduced during the 94th Congress. In enacting the EAHCA, Congress disapprovingly commented on public education’s track record in educating students with disabilities, on its failure to meet their needs, on the lack of equal opportunity in education for them, on their exclusion from classes with their able peers, and on the lack of early detection of those children who have academically challenging disabilities. Those who had been advocating for more attention to children with disabilities were elated with Congress and the passing of PL 94–142. A number of important Supreme Court cases followed the passage of PL 94–142, starting with Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982), further influencing not only the education of students with disabilities but also the practices of public school professionals across the nation.

In sum, ours is a litigious nation, and the field of education has had its fair share of court cases. However, the interplay between legislation and judicial action has been essential in shaping the educational landscape in this country. Each has helped to interpret and hone the other. As Fischer notes, the court has historically interpreted the Constitution and laws on issues related to schools and thus influences education policy.

Executive Initiatives

The reality of the federal system is that policy and practice can be designed and refined at all levels and in all branches, and what begins in one branch or level rarely is contained there for long. There are many examples of this dynamic; the leadership of President Johnson in the development of ESEA legislation is one such example, and the involvement of President George W. Bush in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is another.

When President Johnson began working with the ESEA committee in the early 1960s, skepticism toward a controlling federal government was still abundant, yet many federal leaders believed that the states were not capable of providing educational justice without federal involvement. This law was a major turning point in federal policy, finally breaking through barriers to action that were posed by concerns over race, religion, and federal intervention.

Interestingly, the Gardner Education Task Force, one of 14 policy task forces created by President Johnson to assist in the development of his domestic and international agenda, asserted that state departments of education were too weak to effectively implement the education programs being developed by President Johnson and the ESEA committee. In response, the committee proposed removing the Office of Education from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and creating an independent federal department of education.

Reviewing the organizations that federal leaders have developed to help them design and implement policy (e.g., the U.S. Department of Education, the National Commission on Excellence in Education) provides an interesting way to examine the Federal Role in Education. The federal department of education imagined by Gardner in the 1960s and introduced in bills by countless members of Congress during the first half of the 20th century finally became a reality in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Department of Education Organization Act (P.L. 96–98).

Interestingly, while it was a notable legislative accomplishment, at the time the development of the U.S. Department of Education was more symbolic than substantive. President Carter did not have any major substantive educational reform initiatives in mind, and the federal government was spending around $25 billion on public schools, which represented less than 10% of the total education spending by all levels of government. The U.S. Department of Education officially began operating in May of 1980, and in less than a year, newly elected President Reagan promised to abolish it.

Despite this promise, the department not only survived President Reagan’s administration but also was used handily by his education secretary, Terrell Bell, to create the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) to examine the state of education in America. The commission presented its report, A Nation at Risk, in 1983, and the report became front page news. In the report’s recommendations, a new role was assigned to the federal government: to identify the national interest in education and then to fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. Yet, during the 1980s, the federal government did not provide the leadership called for in the report, relying instead on states to provide such leadership.

President Bill Clinton, who had been considered a strong “education” governor in Arkansas, picked up the challenge identified by former President Bush of defining a federal role in the standards-based reform movement. With his Goals 2000 Act of 1993 and the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994, Clinton made early though not lasting progress. The 1994 reauthorization of IASA represented a major shift for Title I from dictating what educators must do to determining educational outcomes. However, in 2001 Congress dissolved the National Educational Goals Panel, an entity developed to assess the nation’s progress toward its goals.

The following six years signaled a steady decline in the role of the federal government in education. Yet, to the surprise of many, when George W. Bush became president, he did not act in accordance with the Republican platform of reducing the Federal Role in Education. Rather, building on the federal education programs of former presidents Bush and Clinton as well as the programs he had supported in Texas, his presidency led to the development of the 2001 NCLB legislation and, as a result, a profound increase in federal involvement in schools.

The Expanding Federal Role

This entry has described some of the growth in federal involvement in the nation’s schools. While most descriptions of the federal government characterize the legislative, judicial, and executive branches as separate, these entities and their effects often overlap. The most recent and significant example of this is NCLB, which epitomizes the trend of the federal government to shift its emphasis from issues of equity for certain populations of students to standards-based reforms that affect all public school students. Of particular consequence is NCLB’s 2014 accountability goal of having 100% of all students in the United States meeting proficiency levels on Adequate yearly progress (AYP) testable subjects, and the expectation that all students—not just those covered by Title I— will be assessed by the same measures.

Preliminary state-by-state statistics reported to the U.S. Department of Education do not indicate a positive trend. By one report, nearly 25,000 public schools, or more than one fourth of the total, failed to meet the NCLB criteria for AYP in 2004–2005. Among the most serious offenders were Florida; Hawai‘i; Washington D.C.; Nevada; and New Mexico, where 72%, 66%, 60%, 56%, and 53% of the schools respectively failed to show “enough” improvement. Following these statistical trends, the United States should expect the number of failed schools to greatly increase as NCLB continues to raise its accountability standards, leading to questions about the effectiveness of the law and the fairness of its measures. Insofar as NCLB allows states to adjust both their tests and the formulas used to calculate AYP, critics and supporters alike have found it difficult to make definite conclusions about the law’s impact on student achievement. Even so, it is less difficult to discern its impact on the work of school and state education budgets and educational practice. Since the inception of NCLB, states have endured an ongoing struggle to fund the required federal mandates and contend that the federal government offers an inadequate amount of funds to implement NCLB’s accountability system.

In 2005, the federal government appropriated $13 billion to support all of Title I and NCLB. Of that sum, $12 billion was allocated for grants to local education agencies, $948 million for grants under Reading First (a program to improve reading instruction for poor students in low-performing elementary schools), $389 million for state assessments, $96 million for state grants for innovative programs, $86 million for Even Start (preschool) programs, and $47 million for state education agencies to deal with migrant, childhood neglect, and delinquency issues. In contrast the 2005–2006 budget for just the Houston Independent School District—one city in one state—exceeded $1.5 billion.

NCLB, undoubtedly, ratcheted up the level of federal control over public school policies and activities previously overseen by state and local educational authorities. Critics argue that the federal government restricts spending in a way that constrains state choices while increasing intergovernmental regulation and tensions between states and the federal government.

The impact has not stopped with policymakers and state and local educational leaders, however. Rather, the impact can be traced into the classroom. The shift in priorities has encouraged instructional practices and curriculum offerings that are more likely to involve preparation for high-stakes tests rather than research-based offerings designed to support student learning. Moreover, in one survey, teachers from California and Virginia indicated that NCLB sanctions were causing teachers to ignore important aspects of the curriculum. Further, the survey found that even high-quality, experienced teachers were transferring out of schools identified for improvement, which ironically are the very schools that need experienced, high-quality teachers.

The significance of the increased Federal Role in Education extends beyond direct impacts upon educational policy and practice. As education continues to garner increasing interest, more policymakers are paying attention, and the policy environment is becoming more pluralistic. The business community, governors, federal and state leaders, and political candidates are putting more emphasis on educational issues and playing an increased role in defining educational issues, from standards to school reform. Still, the struggle to define the federal government’s role in education has been a continuing issue of concern and will likely maintain its permanency. Whatever else may be said about how this particular struggle will play out in the future, the role of the federal government in education will almost certainly be different from what it has been in the past.

Michelle D. Young and Bradley W. Carpenter

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; No Child Left Behind Act

Further Readings

  • Bernstein, H. T., & Merenda, D. W. (1981). Categorical programs: Past and present. In D. M. Miller (Ed.), The Federal Role in Education (pp. 187). Washington DC: The Institute for Educational Leadership.
  • Carpenter, L. J., & Acosta, R. V. (2005). Title IX. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • DeBray, E. (2006). Politics, ideology and education: Federal policy during the Clinton and Bush administrations. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Elmore, R. F., & Fuhrman, S. (1990). The national interest and the Federal Role in Education. Publius, 20(3), 149–162.
  • Elmore, R. F., & McLaughlin, M. W. (1982). Strategic choice in federal education policy: The compliance-assistance trade-off. In A. Lieberman & M. McLaughlin (Eds.), Policy making in education (pp. 159–194). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fischer, L. (1982). The courts and educational policy. In A. Lieberman & M. McLaughlin (Eds.), Policy making in education (pp. 56–79). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • HISD Connect. (2007). https://www.houstonisd.org
  • Institute of Education Sciences. (2007). Digest of education statistics. Retrieved August 4, 2007, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d06/tables/dt06_105.asp;
  • Jones, P. R. (1981). A practical guide to federal special education law. New York: CBS College Publishing.
  • Lapati, A. D. (1975). Education and the federal government. New York: Mason/Charter.
  • Manna, P. (2007). School’s in: Federalism and the national education agenda. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  • NCEE. (1983). A nation at risk. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
  • Texas Education Agency, NCLB Program Coordination. (n.d.). Questions about public school choice under NCLB school improvement programs. Available from https://www.tea.state.tx.us/nclb/PDF/SchoolChoiceQNA.pdf
  • Sunderman, G. L., Kim, J., & Orfield, G. (2005). NCLB meets school realities: Lessons from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Wong, K. K. (1999). Political institutions and educational policy. In G. J. Cizek (Ed.), Handbook of educational policy (pp. 560). San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Wood, G. (2004). A view from the field: NCLB’s effects on classrooms and schools. In D. W. Meier & G. Wood (Ed.), Many children left behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is damaging our children and our schools (pp. 33–52). Boston: Beacon Press.

Legal Citations