Education in the US Since 1965, Perhaps It Is Time to Rethink the Federal Role


There was a time, way back in the day, when racial segregation in public education was commonplace across the country. "Separate but Equal" was the legal doctine upon which many, if not most, states addressed the issue.  As a society, thankfully we have come a long way since those days.

Policymakers and others started paying attention to education policy in the United States in the early 80s when the U.S. Department of Education issued it's report in 1983 "A Nation at Risk". This report was a wake up call for America. Our public education systerm was seemingly faltering, according to the report. Our students were not as competitive on an international scale as was the case in previous decades.  Students from many other industrialized countries were beginnig to outperform U.S. students on key international assessements in math and science. It was bit alarming and it was worth paying attention.

Historically, in the United States as we know, the issue of education has predominantly been a state and local concern. State constitutions address the issue of public education. The U.S. Constitution does not directly.

The federal encroachment into education policy began to change in the 1950s, leading into the 1960s when legislation, known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965(ESEA) was passed as part of President Johnson's "Great Society" initiative. ESEA's purpose was to address the achievement gap that existed between the majority white population and the black minority population across the country, especially the south. Arguably, not officially, this legislation was the legislative remedy to address the 1954 Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board of Education which determined that intentional racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of our U.S. Constitution and states were required to provide a remedy. Some states took it seriously, others did not.

After the 1954 case, some states argued that the costs of integrating public schools would be cost prohibitive and little action was taken to address the Supreme Court decision. The 1965 ESEA addressed that by providing federal dollars to assist with the effort and eliminate or reduce the political and financial arguments against racial integration, the primary reason of the legislation was to close or at least substatially narrow the racial achievement gap. 

For the next twenty years, ESEA was the law of the land with billions of federal dollars fllowing to the state and local levels to close the achievement gap, and it received little modification every time the law was renewed by Congress every three or four years.

That began to change in the 1980s with a renewed focus on the plight of public education in America.  "A Nation at Risk" was a wake up call.

In 1994 after much national attention having been placed on public education in the previous decade, the Clinton Administration proposed significant modifications to ESEA to place "accountabily" into the lexicon of public education in form of testing requirements. ESEA became known as the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA). The point of the legislation was not to demonize or penalize public schools for poor performance. On the contrary, the intent was to drive data from the education systems through an annual assessment into the public arena so resources could be targeted to the problems. Sounds logical, right?  Well, it didn't necessarily work out so well. 

States put up strong resistance to the idea of federal intervention and testing all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as prescribed by the federal law. Many states argued that the cost of administering such tests were prohibitive. Most states, if not eventually all of them, applied to the U.S. Secretary of Education for relief, and received it in the form of a waiver, meaning they didn't have to comply with the accountability portion of the federal law. But the funding for the law still flowed as it had for decades and it was in the billions of dollars. States received the federal funds which then flowed to school district and schools and still for the purpose of closing the achievement gap but there was no real way to measure success. 

In 2001, ESEA (IASA) was again up for reauthorization before Congress and there was a new President in the White House, George W. Bush. Among other issues, Bush ran on a platform of education reform and accountability. Once elected to the Presidency he also found an unlikely ally on the other side of the aisle in the U.S. Senate,  Massachussetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who became the sponsor and champion of the newest education reform bill known as the No Child Left Behind Act. It was a very big deal. After much legislative negotiation, the Bill was crafted.

For anyone unfamiliar with the legislative process some laws are put in place on a permanent basis, others are put in place for a specific period of time to achieve certain goals after which the law "sunsets", or terminates, unless it is renewed/reauthorized by new legislation. When a reauthorization bill comes along it is the responsiblity of the legislature to review the existing law and ask the question, has the law been effective and/or has it met its intended goal(s)?  If not, what should be done?

In the case of ESEA and its several iterations over the years, while billions of dollars were flowing to the states under the federal law, the racial achievement gap stubbornly remained unchanged as measured by the bi-annual national assessment known as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Policymakers were then met with the options of 1) not renewing the law and reduce the role of the federal government in public eduction and eliminating that funding stream to states to reduce the federal budget and the federal footprint in education entirely, 2) renewing the law as is without any modifications or measurement tools in place or 3) attempt to improve the law to require states to implement an accountability system to measure success. Lawmakers chose option 3 and created the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Its purpose was not dramatically different than previous iterations but there were some significant differences in implementation, not the least of which being a requirement that all states and territorities must create an assessment and accountability system and if they did not, the federal dollars would cease to flow to that state. Some referred to this as a federal mandate. Technically it was not a mandate, it was a "condition of grant", meaning it was a condition of receiving the federal dollars flowing to the state under the law.

There was also another significant difference from previous versions in the Bush Administration, there were to be no waivers granted to any state and every state eventually complied. NCLB was signed and became the law of the land on January 8, 2002. Within a couple of years every state had an assessment and accountability plan put in place and critical information on the status on our schools and school systems began to flow. It was an eye opener.

NCLB has been a double edged sword. It certainly had its flaws like any major piece of legislation. While the Act was focused on the original intent of closing the achievement gap, it also ushered in a new culture in the legislatures and state departments of education based on standardized testing to measure success or failure and to shine light on the areas that were once covered in darkness. Overall has NCLB moved the dial in meeting the original intent of ESEA, to close the racial achievement gap across the country? Not really, but it has embedded a culture of accountability in public education that was sorely lacking and provided states with accountability tools to drive resources in a targeted manner to improve public education. Has the culture of accountability focused on testing gone too far? Fair question.

NCLB was scheduled for reauthorization/restructuing in 2007, five years after it became law. This was important because one of the major goals, and a major challenge, of NCLB was for every school in the country to reach one hundred percent proficiency in math, science and language arts by the year 2014, twelve years after its passage. It was a very lofty and ambitious goal which made a lot of adminstrators and teachers across the country very nervous. While this was put into the federal law as a goal, there was clamor from day one that it was unrealistic and could not be met. But, it was only a goal and there were no negative ramificaitons built in to the law for schools that could not achieve it. The concerns were certainly legitimate from a statistical perspective but he counter argument became, if you reduce the percentage goal, what subgroup of students do you plan to leave behind? This was a real political and unsolvable conundrum. It became a major point of contention across the country. Every year the percentage of proficiency requirement increased until it reached one hundred percent in 2014. The prevailing belief and argument in the early years was that this issue would be dealt with and adjusted when NCLB came back up for reauthoriztion in 2007 so the one hundred percent proficiency was reluctantly accepted in anticipation of restructuring.

For a variety of reasons, all political, NCLB was not reauthorized in 2007. Had it been reauthorized on schedule, the one hundred percent proficiency goal would surely have been dealt with and restructured. Unfortunately ESEA/NCLB was not again reauthorized until eight years later in December of 2015. By that time, many states had been granted waivers by the new Obama administration and the proficiency requirement had basically and understandably collapsed.

The new reauthorization of ESEA, The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) did not make significant changes to the existing law but it did eliminate the proficiency goals of NCLB. It also set a renewal/reauthorization of 2019. It provides states much more flexibility in how to apply the federal funding flowing behind the law and it slightly shifted state responsibilty back the the Governor's office in each state as opposed to whoever holds the title of State School Chief. This is important because Governors and legislatures now have more tools to work with the federal law in crafting legislation and policies at the state level to address the broader challenges of workforce development, etc.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the federal role in education? 

Although only providing about eight percent of overall education funding, the federal government has been deeply involved in K-12 public education policy for the better part of six decades and arguably has become the tail wagging the dog. The achievement gap has not closed as was the original intent and goal of federal intervention but our society has been mostly, if not fully racially integrated on a macro level. We have come a long way as a society. State budgets for education have also grown significantly over the decades, reducing the need for federal dollars. 

There also has been an unnoticed but positive outcome of NCLB that should be recognized and folded into the discussion of education policy moving forward.

Twenty years ago, before NCLB, if you asked the average Governor or state legislator about supporting public education, nine times out of ten you would get a standard political answer of "we need to increase funding for education", and that was the end of the conversation. Education policy at the state level was set by state House or Senate Education Committees mostly comprised and controlled by educators and administrators, highly influence by unions and establishment forces. Today, if you ask a state policymaker about education policy, nine out of ten will respond with a much deeper base of understanding, knowledge and opinion about education policy, mandatory testing, workforce development, etc. The issues have evolved and reverted back to the states to lead the conversation. The policy discussions on education have elevated significantly. Governors and legislators in every state are at the forefront of education issues and moving forward with positive and creative solutions to meet the challenges of the now technology driven industry. 

The culture of education accountability is now fully embedded in our state governments from the Governors' offices to legislature to state departments of education and many states are leading the way with innovative ideas and solutions. 

Once again, states can become the laboratoraties of democracy and innovation as articulated by Justice Brandeis a hundred years ago.

Perhaps it is now time for the federal government to get out of the way and let the states solve the problems without the heavy hand of the federal government dictating from afar what "accountabilty" in education really means.

Perhaps it is time to finally allow ESEA to expire as having not met its original intended goal. 

Perhaps it is time to let states do what they do best, innovate and lead the way.

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