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The Limits of Federal Educational Policy

by Harry L. Summerfield - 1974

The direction and rate of change in education should be free to respond to social and economic change and should not be restrained by limited vested interests of well-established power blocks.

Harry L. Summerfield is currently resident scholar, The Wright Institute, Berkeley, California, and a research candidate at The San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute working on a study of authority and education. He is author of The Neighborhood Based Politics of Education (Charles E. Merrill, 1971). This article is based upon a larger book,© Harry L. Summerfield, Power and Process: The Formulation and Limits of Federal Educational Policy, The McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1974, and printed by permission of the publisher.

It is well established that within the federal policy process there is a viable structure for educational decision-making vested in the lobbies, the Congress, and the administration.1 Where power and the machinery for power exist, power can be used. Indeed, the very existence of the machinery of federal power in educational policy formulation is a result of its growing and continued use. But where power exists there is no inevitability that it will be exercised. It does not have to be used and perhaps should not be used. This bias is a cardinal principle of republican democracy. Before the existing power potential of the federal policy process is exercised in a new and greater spurt for expansion of the federal role in American education, it is the scholarly and political task to evaluate what the prospects are of such aggregation of power for the welfare of American public education. Such an evaluation need be neither idealistic nor strident; rather, it should set federal education power humanely and responsibly within the aspiration of the American society.


To the mid-1970s the federal role in education has been what Daniel Moynihan calls "programmatic."2 In the context of established, ongoing, locally controlled, vastly decentralized public educational systems, the federal government, in the general spirit of "tireless tinkering," has allocated limited sums of federal dollars to be used to bolster school operations where they have appeared to be failing. The major program has been aid to the disadvantaged through Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but numerous other programs such as bilingual education and educational research also aid the existing systems. Federal programs have also sought to encourage skills and values deemed especially important to the national well-being, for example, vocational education or the broad National Defense Education Act, which fostered science, math, and foreign languages. These federal programs leave the established structure of schooling intact.

There has not yet been what Moynihan would call "social policy" in education. He best distinguishes social policy from programmatic change in his book recording the history of the Family Assistance Plan.3 As a proclaimed liberal, but also as the most important adviser on domestic affairs in the Nixon administration, Moynihan proposed a sweeping, new, comprehensive family income policy—a "quantum leap" of policy—to replace the worn and failing county-based system of public welfare in America. Moynihan argues that the widely acknowledged failure and personal degradation of the extant system of public welfare made the early 1970s a propitious time to reject both the old policy and a strategy which would create proposals to fix up and repair the old policy with piecemeal new programs. The time was right, he thought, for a new, comprehensive, nationwide federally planned and administered policy that would enhance individual dignity and preserve the cherished values of family unity and work.

In another context, Moynihan is more explicit.4 He argues generally that piecemeal programs do not solve problems in a society that has become a "system"—that is, where everything is related to everything else. Although idealists or old-fashioned thinkers may not like it, Moynihan and many others argue that recognition that the United States is a system is now necessary, which means that for a given problem, a policy, not programs, is required. Moynihan does not specify that the federal government need promulgate all policies, but because a social or economic problem necessarily ramifies throughout the system among social institutions unbounded by geography, his viewpoint obviously requires policy planning to take place at the suitable central, and therefore mostly federal, level.

As long as the federal role in educational finance remains at the mid-1970 level of 7 to 9 percent of the total cost of education in America, a broad federal educational policy is impossible. The smallness of the federal involvement requires that it be stated in limited programs punctuating the sustaining structure of education in the nation's sixteen thousand school districts. But to systemic thinkers sharing Moynihan's general view, the decentralized and seemingly inchoate pattern for delivery of education may be a basic problem awaiting a propitious time for a "quantum leap" in policy. If for any set of reasons, such as real strains on local tax ability to support schooling, pressure materializes to increase dramatically the federal role to perhaps one-third or one-half the total cost of education throughout the country, then the possibility for a federal education policy in Moynihan's sense will become quite real. (By the early 1970s major national education lobbies like the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association had already put themselves on record favoring such a policy.) Considering the pressures for local tax reform and the presence of powerful educational structures in Washington, the contingency of an expanded federal role should be taken seriously.


Since the New Deal, discussion of governmental intervention to promote the well-being of the lives of citizens has been tantamount to analysis of the concept of liberalism. Moynihan and other men of affairs who identify themselves as liberals have embraced Nathan Glazer's formulation: "The liberal stance is [that] for every problem there is a policy."5 In a humane and compassionate spirit, American liberals identify social failures—often problems faced by the poor, aged, powerless, or others who are discriminated against. In Glazer's words:

In the liberal view . . . we have a sea of misery, scarcely diminished by all the voluntary charitable efforts.6

Government should and can correct the faults:

Government then starts moving in, setting up dikes pushing back the sea and reclaiming the land, so to speak . . . The typical stance of the liberal in dealing with issues of social policy is blame—not of the unfortunates, those suffering from the ills that the social policy is meant to remove, but of society, of the political system and its leaders.7

Liberalism so conceived is a style of governance that became institutionalized at the federal level during the New Deal. Based on the analysis that social problems are tied to economic structures—to the distribution of wealth and the relationship of citizens to the means of production—only the federal level was thought to be a viable place to solve social problems because there labor, business, and advocates for national interest intersected with government in the context of Keynesian economics. Thus because of the structure of the system, liberals could not be localists. Ultimately liberals became identified with both the protection and the use of centralized federal power.

Liberalism, however, has had a much broader definition historically. Instead of viewing liberalism as an action—that is, first as an indictment of government and then as governmental program and policy—or as a style of government located at the federal level, liberalism is best conceived as a goal. Liberalism has always been a philosophy of individualism, and the role of the state, while shifting in liberal thought, has always had the function to maintain the qualities of individualism. John Dewey traces the roots of liberal thought to 1688, the "glorious revolution," and John Locke:

The outstanding points of Locke's version of liberalism is that governments are instituted to protect the rights that belong to individuals prior to political organization and social relations. These rights are those summed up a century later in the American Declaration of Independence: the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.8

He adds:

The whole temper of this philosophy is individualistic in the sense in which individualism is opposed to organized social action. It held to the primacy of the individual over the state not only in time but in moral authority. It defined the individual in terms of liberties of thought and action already possessed by him in some mysterious ready-made fashion, and which it was the sole business of the state to safeguard.9

The goal of liberalism is a humane and dignified social existence which permits personal development. In an entirely different context, and writing for a different epoch, Nevitt Sanford characterizes one aspect of what Locke and Jefferson may have meant by personal development:

Development in the ego is intimately bound up with the freeing of impulse and with the enlightenment of conscience. ... It follows that ego growth (development of the individual) is hampered by authoritarian or overprotective regimes and by permissive-chaotic ones. The former do riot give the functions of the ego a chance for exercise; the latter, through too much stimulation of impulse with consequent anxiety, may put too heavy a strain upon the developing ego.10

With the happiness of the individual and not the needs of organizations and institutions as the primary goal, the state, in liberal thought, is bound to be neither overly strong nor overly weak; it must act when and where necessary, but not ideologically. It is not an ideology of the state to which liberalism addresses itself; it is a view of the individual.

(For the sake of a logical alternative, liberalism can be posed as different from conservatism on the basis of goal. Whereas liberalism focuses on the individual, conservatism, as used here, focuses on the sanctity of organizations and institutions. Thus to a conservative, government is more important than individuals under the assumption that the individual's destiny is the effect of the destiny of government. The extreme example is organic theory—Hegel in philosophy and fascism in politics. Glazer notes that most Americans who call themselves conservatives are actually, in the main, "slow liberals." That is, American conservatives in the vein of eighteenth-century liberals like Jefferson and Locke generally value stability in social order and minimal government involvement in the name of individual welfare. American conservatives most fit the definition used here when they value corporate capitalism—economic institutions—rather than individuals as the basis of society.)

The role of government in liberal thought has shifted over the years. In the context of eighteenth-century agrarian society, the pursuit of individual welfare seemed incompatible with interferences by government:

Liberalism inherited this conception of a natural antagonism between ruler and ruled, interpreted as natural opposition between the individual and organized society.11

Minimal state involvement continued as a hallmark of liberalism into the period of industrialization, and appeared, at first, well suited to laissez-faire capitalism. The "invisible hand" described by Adam Smith, not palpable action of the state, seemed suited to economic progress, and economic progress seemed in the interest of all. By the nineteenth century, however, the obvious practical defects of laissez-faire capitalism became evident. Urbanization changed the cultural context of the lives of individuals, and the toll of industrialization and urbanization made liberalism incompatible with the philosophy of laissez faire. The British Utilitarians, not losing sight of the individual, sought a calculus whereby collective political and economic policy would be designed to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of individuals. From Jeremy Bentham to Franklin Roosevelt, liberalism gradually became a collective policy using government power, not for the organic purposes of the state, but for relief of strains on the individual caused by industrial life. Dewey writes that even by the nineteenth century liberalism:

. . . came surely, if gradually, to be disassociated from the laissez-faire creed and to be associated with the use of governmental action for aid to those at economic disadvantage and for alleviation of their conditions.12

Dewey himself represents a dual tradition of modern liberalism. In his pedagogic writings at the turn of the century (e.g., Democracy and Education) he, and clearly his disciples, advocated an individualism which stated that through schooling individuals could learn to adapt to and participate in the industrial economy. The state had the minimal function, he felt, not of controlling the social and economic order but of aiding people to adapt. By the mid-1930s he advocated a liberal interpretation which said that the state should transform the economy for individuals rather than the reverse. He wrote:

Regimentation of material and mechanical forces is the only way by which the mass of individuals can be released from regimentation and consequent suppression of their cultural possibilities .... The notion that organized social control of economic forces lies outside the historic path of liberalism shows that liberalism is still impeded by remnants of its earlier laissez faire phase with its opposition of society and the individual .... We must reverse the perspective and see that socialized economy is the means of free individual development as the end.13

Although liberals like Moynihan and politicians like Lyndon Johnson were not willing to go as far as Dewey recommended, the differences between them and Dewey is only one of degree and strategy, not of fundamental philosophy. All liberals in the mid-twentieth century believed that economic growth was progress and that, when economic growth impeded social and individual welfare, corrective political action both to change individuals and to change the effects of the economy on individuals should be taken. Liberal government relied on two factors: (1) informed intelligence created by social and economic technicians about problems and proper remedial policy; and (2) the use of government power to change the relation of individuals to the means of production as well as their very life styles. In housing, transportation, employment, poverty, and a myriad of other categories, the federal government acquired a primary interest in seeking to maintain economic growth and to ensure that human beings benefited in the process. (The failures of liberalism, where they occurred, should not detract from understanding the philosophy which motivated it.)


Having identified liberalism with systemic, federal action at this juncture in history when the federal government is able and likely to expand its role in educational finance, is it illiberal to doubt the virtue of such a policy? The answer, of course, depends on whether one considers liberalism to be an ideological political style or a philosophical goal. If it is a style, there is no doubt: Federal action is liberal. If it is a goal, Dewey, the quintessential American pragmatist, would probably be more circumspect. Might he turn to the Utilitarians and ask: Is it not necessary to make decisions based on what brings the most benefit to the most people as individuals? In a society collectivized by urbanism, what policy would benefit the largest number of people? The pragmatic question is worth exploring, although it is always more difficult to answer than the ideological question.

In a liberal calculus, the proper relationship of education, the individual, and the state is based on the relationship of the individual to his culture at a point in time. It is not said to be "proper" for moral reasons, but because of structural realities. Education and the individual develop within a cultural context. It has been amply demonstrated that schools are structured by the culture. From the start of the twentieth century, public education never became a part of a federal social policy; yet, remarkably, without a central government policy, almost every child was able to attend school and did so for a similar purpose: because the social and economic opportunities—that is, the social structure of American life in the context of corporate capitalism—made school attendance necessary to individual and social welfare. Joel Spring writes:

After all, the original purpose of social education at the turn of the century was to fit man into the industrial world. Education did turn men into things that had to be trained and molded for the requirements of society . . . . As long as the public schools take responsibility for the socialization of the child, social adaptation to the institution becomes inevitable.14

Just as culturally defined social roles and economic opportunity were filtered through schooling during the period of American industrialization, individual development in an emerging postindustrial period will require an adaptation of education—adapted to the cultural context of different post-industrial times. Some indicators of those times are now apparent.

America today is evolving toward a culture based on increasing leisure; a work force increasingly engaged in nonproduction occupations; and an end to unlimited material growth. The latter implies also an end to the illusion of improvement of one's personal status through increased material consumption. The American individual in the last part of this century is less and less tied to rote industrial and work structures—as well as less tied to family structure— and more dependent on individual personality development as a source of growth.15 Automation, cybernetics, and system planning in industry ironically undermine the basis for systems planning in educational policy because job roles, as well as private recreation and fulfillment, come increasingly to depend on decisions by individuals about their proper relationship to material, to others, and to themselves.

If the trends toward individual personality development in the economic and social structure are real, and if they continue to be valued, then what will be needed in the future, as in the past, is education for individuals tailored to their emergent needs within their viable cultural context. If the goal of individualism is cherished, the institutional delivery system for education will be less like that of the past, when it was designed to adapt individuals to industrial roles, and should become increasingly flexible and adaptive to individual personal development. This would seem to require myriad educational policies depending upon local and small group circumstances (pluralism) and individual need, and seems directly opposite of what can be expected from a large-scale federal involvement in educational policy.


Two major arguments for creation of federal policy are currently offered: (1) the need to aid the disadvantaged and (2) the need to reform the system of educational finance.

Federal policy in elementary and secondary education has been geared primarily to remediation of the disadvantaged (poor, handicapped, discriminated against) or remediation of skills (math, science, foreign languages, vocational training). For the most part federal policy has attempted to help the individual adapt to the local school program, and thus was mainly in line with the goals of locally controlled schooling. (The major point of divergence came with the federal commitment to equal educational opportunity through racial desegregation; however, this decision of the courts was based on constitutional, not educational, principles, and could not be said to constitute a federal education policy.) Federal policy was not reformist in the sense that it attempted to alter the structure or values of American public education.

On its face, federal support to help raise underachieving children (mainly black and other minority) to the norms of the American white middle class seems to be a classically liberal goal. It would seek to increase individual welfare by increasing individual ability to compete in the economic structure on the assumption that school achievement is related to economic well-being. Such a goal is a limited federal education commitment to aid the dispossessed. Pursuit of the goal is not ostensibly deleterious to the overriding dominance of decentralized education outlets, and thus has negligible effects on the redistribution of power to control education.

Although the effects of compensatory education seem negligible and the social effects of emphasizing achievement in schools seem slightly discriminatory,16 the policy of compensatory education is relatively harmless—at least in comparison with the problem raised by attempts to equalize teachers' salaries throughout the nation.

Correction of the relationship of workers to the means of production is a classic liberal goal best illustrated in the 1935 Wagner Act. Because American schools are organized into districts of unequal wealth, the amount of dollars spent on children, that is, dollars for teachers' salaries, varies widely among and within states. (In practice, dollars are not spent on children. Approximately 80-85 percent of education dollars go for teachers' salaries and benefits.) A system of federal finance of schools under an equity dollar distribution formula could correct the disparities among school district salaries and, within tolerable differences, provide teachers throughout the nation with essentially similar salaries for performing essentially similar work regardless of whether they reside in a poor or a rich school district.

Although the goal of equity to teachers meets liberal criteria for goal setting, the antiliberal (patently conservative) potential of such a policy for the nation is enormous. If the federal government becomes the source of new dollars in education and if most educational dollars are currently spent on teachers' salaries, logic would lead to the conclusion that teachers would organize power into large national unions capable of negotiating with Congress and the administration over salary increases. Predictably, the source of dollars draws political petitioners, and teachers would not be alone. Virtually any set of interests— school districts, principals, superintendents, building contractors, reformers, reactionaries, etc.—would look to the federal level as its most effective political unit.

In the least complicated model of massive federal involvement, dollars would be allocated to state legislatures (or school districts) to be spent as state and local officials deem. Even in this model with no programmatic federal policy attached, the net result is a profound institutional shift of educational politics to a nationwide, centralized focus from where the dollars emanate. In more complicated models, massive federal involvement with powerful organized interests could seek federally promulgated education programs, or, in Moynihan's term, education policy. This can even occur tacitly as established interests seek to maintain their institutional roles, thus denying the validity of options. Teachers, in particular, have a short-run vested interest in maintaining the classroom-based schoolhouse with fixed student-teacher ratios. A yet more complicated model would find specific education policies promulgated in the "national interest" with the effect of homogenizing curriculum and student experiences across the nation. Given the proclivities of the federal policy process for educational decision-making to compromise in the face of conflict, a vast amount of general aid dollars for education could easily be eroded to meet the demands of organized interests. Social policy in education within this context would require "expert" planning—technocratic diagnosis of problems and technical prescription of solutions—and this would create a new cadre of vested interests.

An adequate theory of education must comprise more than pedagogical tenets. It must, in the postindustrial era, include a theory of institutions, a theory of individual development, and, ultimately, a view of the relationship of individuals to institutions. In considering these factors, the result of massive federal involvement in education would predictably be conservative—as defined above—with focus on organizations and institutions and their vested interests, making not only the members of the organization but also its clients (children) the servants of the organization. The classic reason for centralizing social policy is to gain increased power leverage for classes of interest, but children, from a practical viewpoint, do not and, in an individualistic theory, should not compose a viable class in the context of power and dollars within the federal policy process. Centralization of power in education in the interests of individual development of children seems a poor risk.

Critics and decision-makers must look beyond short-range problems of finance or momentary national need to the longer-range issue of the permanent institutional shifts that accompany short-range decisions. In education, a short-term policy of increasing the federal role in educational finance to relieve tax burdens and obtain teacher salary equity or for whatever reasons carries with it the long-term installation of nationally vested teacher interests which will bring similar power aggregations for other groups and interests. Creation of heavily vested long-term power blocks makes increase in federal educational finance profoundly illiberal, and therefore, in the context of education in American culture, unwise.


If individualism in the sense of personal development is to flourish as a fundamental goal of American education, then federal education policy must be limited to at most a piecemeal programmatic effort to support selected special interests like research or aid to the disadvantaged. A liberal relationship of individual to education institution means preservation of vastly decentralized educational outlets with the potential for the relationship of individuals and the educational outlets to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

New social and economic conditions evolve slowly, and schools even more slowly, but the matching of education to the evolving culture, which is the same as saying that human values change as conditions of life change, does take place. Before people give up their old securities, they need to test new adaptations; thus slowness has the virtue of helping people maintain continuity with their environment and themselves. The direction and rate of change in education should be free to respond to social and economic change and should not be restrained by limited vested interests of well-established power blocks. The words of Federalist No. 10 still seem sound:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.17

1 See the substantive chapters in Harry L. Summerfield. Power and Process: The Formulation and Limits of Federal Educational Policy. Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan Publishing, 1974, as well as Eugene Eidenberg and Roy Morey. An Act of Congress. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969; and Stephen K. Bailey and Edith Mosher. ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1968.

2 Daniel P. Moynihan. The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan. New York: Vintage Books, 1973, Ch. 8.

3 Ibid.

4 Daniel P. Moynihan, "Politics versus Program in the 1970s," The Public Interest, No. 20, Summer 1970.

5 Nathan Glazer, "The Limits of Social Policy," Commentary, Vol. 52, No. 3, September 1971.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

7  Ibid.

8 John Dewey. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: Capricorn Books, 1935, p. 4.

9 Ibid., p. 5.

10 Nevitt Sanford. The American College. New York: John Wiley, 1965, p. 279.

11 Dewey, op.cit., p. 5.

12 Ibid., p. 21. The collectivist view carried so far that it became an academic discipline of sociology. In his classic work Suicide, Emile Durkheim, through his concept of anomie, argued that for an individual life itself had no meaning outside meaningful role relationships. Marx, in his radical economic analysis, envisioned individual man existing as part of a social class, and as a member of a class, exploited or favored. Individual interest was, in fact, class interest.

13 Ibid., p. 90.

14 Joel Spring. Education and the Rise of the Corporate State. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1972, p. 171.

15 The concept of personality development cannot be explored here, but the interested reader is referred to work done in the 1950s and 1960s by Erik Erikson, Abraham Maslow, Nevitt Sanford, and others. Increase in the capacity of the individual to mature—to differentiate his view of the world and integrate his own personality—is the goal of personality development. This goal is distinguished from, although not necessarily antithetical to, development of the economy or one's status within it.

16 Pursuit of compensatory education has other problems, however. According to the research reported in James Coleman et al. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966, and reanalyzed by Christopher Jencks, Marshall Smith, Henry Ackland, Mary Jo Bane, David Cohen, Herbert Gintis, Barbara Heyns, and Stephan Michelson. Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. New York: Basic Books, 1972, in the book Inequality, compensatory education does not, in fact, serve to increase achievement. The academic achievement of children seems crucially dependent on their cultural background and relationship to their families, and is only marginally dependent on their public institutional relations. Secondly, failure of the pedagogic aspects of compensatory education is perhaps not as important as the social implications which a federal commitment to equal educational achievement encourages. Jencks infers in Inequality that the credentialing system—the granting of status through diplomas and certification through schooling—is a discriminatory criterion for economic achievement if credentials are based upon school achievement measures. The number of years spent in school is a better indicator of where an individual will fit in the stratified economic system than is school achievement. If Jencks is correct, then it follows that disadvantaged children should be supported by governmental action in a way that will keep them in school for more years or by an action which intervenes in the custom of credentialing rather than a policy designed to raise their test scores (and presumably drive them from school if they "fail")- In other words, by encouraging improvement of test scores and permitting social selection to be based on test scores, children of the poor—particularly blacks—are somewhat discriminated against. This is a social goal away from liberalism.

17 Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York: The New American Library, 1961.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 76 Number 1, 1974, p. 7-17
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1364, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:31:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Harry Summerfield
    The Wright Institute, Berkeley, California
    Harry L. Summerfield is currently, resident scholar of The Wright Institute, Berkeley, California, and a research candidate at The San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute working on a study of authority and education. He is author of The Neighborhood Based Politics of Education(Charles E. Merrill, 1971). This article is based upon a larger book, Power and Process: The Formulation and Limits of Federal Educational Policy, The McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1974, and printed by permission of the publisher.
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