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The Future of Federal Educational Policy

by James W. Guthrie - 1983

This article explores the evolution of federal government policy on education during the past 20 years, points out trends likely to influence future policy, and projects possible future responses to these trends. The roles of educational interest groups instrumental in passing the legislation are described. (Source: ERIC)


The United States has one of the world’s most complicated mechanisms for the formation and implementation of education policy, This is a consequence both of conscious constitutional design and unplanned historic development. Regardless of the causes, the outcome is a system of schooling riddled with paradox. Education is intended to benefit those who are gifted, badly disabled, and all those in between. The old and the young, the elite as well as the poor, are all encompassed by school programs. This education system is expected at once to ensure social cohesion as well as cultural diversity, academic achievement as well as vocational relevance, moral virtue as well as individual self-enhancement. Schools are to be free of politics yet responsive to their clients; sensitive to national needs, yet subject to the desires of local citizens; and controlled by lay persons while staffed by professionals. All such expectations must be met in a national climate of values that stresses, however incompatible, equality, excellence, and efficiency. More complicated still, education policy is the concomitant responsibility of all three levels of government, federal, state, and local. Given such complexity, the wonder is that American schools function at all.


This article concentrates on one component of the complex American educational policy system, the federal government. The purpose of the article is to explore the evolution of contemporary federal government education policy and its implementation, to discuss developing trends that may influence the future of federal education policy, and to offer a view regarding alternative responses to such trends.




Prior to 1959, the federal government contributed but two cents out of every lower-education revenue dollar. (Even this amount had been doubled by the funding of the 1958 National Defense Education Act.) Initial appropriations for the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act again doubled this federal share, and by 1968 yet another doubling to 8 percent had taken place. Throughout the 1970s, the federal government’s funding contribution was to remain stable or to decline only slightly. However, absolute dollar appropriation levels continued upward until by fiscal year 1980 they reached approximately $7 billion.


Because of both the rapid percentage growth and the awesome absolute dollar levels, the 1960s and the 1970s can be characterized as the “Federal Era” in U.S. education policymaking. This period encompassed enactment of three major initiatives aimed at enhancing equality of educational opportunity the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Titles I and VII (Compensatory and Bilingual Education), and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA). In addition, this period saw the continuation of major funding for vocational education and federal in-lieu of-tax subventions to local school districts. Both the magnitude of such funding and the number of major programs themselves represented a substantial departure from the federal government role in U.S. educational policymaking prior to World War II (Munger and Fenno 1961).


What provoked such a departure? What if any role was played by traditional educational policy actors such as school and school district officials and state agencies?




Conventional wisdom holds that public policy is a product of a representative governmental body recognizing and responding to an otherwise neglected area of social need. Further yet, according to this scenario, once the dimensions of policy are shaped in the legislative process, then the administration of the program is conducted in the politically sanitized setting of the executive branch where only technical matters of implementation are considered. The fairy tale is complicated further by the view that a politically independent judiciary stands ready to resolve remaining problems of policy interpretation.


The complexity of contemporary society renders such stereotypical views substantially inaccurate. The policy process can be initiated in the judicial branch as well as in the executive or legislative components of government. Implementation is far from simply a technical matter devoid of political considerations. For example, legislative officials may come to care as much or more about administration of a program as do executive officials.


Federal education initiatives enacted after World War II fit no easy analytic pattern, either conventional or unconventional. The origins and operation of many federal programs can be explained by the traditional political science view of interaction between components of the so-called iron triangle comprised of executive branch officials, legislative representatives, and interest-group speakers. Important federal government programs such as vocational education, higher education acts, and in-lieu-of-tax subventions generally fit such a conventional pattern. However, they have their roots in conditions and legislation in existence prior to World War II.


Other major federal education programs were initiated and subsequently evolved as a consequence of a quite different set of organizational dynamics. This latter, unconventional, pattern accounts for the federal programs that most characterize the 1960s and 1970s-the major efforts at enhancing equal education opportunity, ESEA Titles I and VII and EHCA. Thus it is these latter policies on which this article concentrates in order to illustrate the major policy formation and implementation patterns of the Federal Era, the 1960s and 1970s.


Policy Formation


Both ESEA and EHCA were conventional in the sense that they were products of a broad social concern, the civil rights movement launched in the mid-1950s by the U.S. Supreme Court in its racial desegregation cases.1 Through a variety of channels, this judicial concern for greater equality eventually was translated into greater public consciousness on related dimensions such as voting abuses, living conditions in cities, the educational problems of students from low-income and non-English speaking households, and handicapped students. In some instances this consensus was initiated or intensified by judicial opinions, such as was the case for bilingual education in Lau v. Nichols, and for the handicapped in Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens v. Pennsylvania or Mills v. Washington, D.C.2 In other instances, the cumulative impact of academic research helped to shape a favorable climate of opinion, as was the case for the human capital argument related to the “War on Poverty” programs of the Johnson administration (Aaron 1978). Yet on other occasions, public opinion was intensified by popular writers, as in the instance of Michael Harrington’s (1962) influential book The Other America: Poverty in the United States.


The precise means by which ideas are diffused throughout a society is not altogether well known. Suffice it to say that beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s, Americans generally were made keenly aware of the existence of a number of social injustices. Thus, there developed a climate of public opinion favorable to social reform efforts. Woodrow Wilson stated that a people could be elevated to an altruistic plane but once each generation. For the United States, the mid-1960s and the 1970s were to be such a high point.


In addition to the existence of this highly sensitized public social consciousness, the launching of education’s Federal Era was characterized also by a long history of efforts to gain enactment of major federal programs. For a century prior to passage of ESEA, major federal aid to public education had been proposed in bill after bill. Each foundered on the political shoals described by Bailey and Mosher (1967) as “Race, Religion, and the Reds.”3 Their shorthand captured the sense of Southern antagonism to federal aid if racial desegregation were a precondition for local districts’ utilizing the funds. A mixture of other groups opposed use of federal funds to aid nonpublic schools, and urged a widespread view that federal intervention spelled doom for local control of education, for a communist state would soon follow. For each of these views, there existed an opposing camp of equal vehemence. Massive federal education aid proposals never survived the squeeze. Nevertheless, not all was lost from the multitude of efforts. If it is accurate that ideas must be proposed several times before they can be accepted, then this history of failure served a purpose: A threshold of political tolerance had been established. In addition, it may be that such a threshold operates also to protect programs already in existence. At least, public acceptance may render reduction or elimination politically more difficult.


However typical the climate of public support for education achieved by the mid-1960s and however much had grown legislative tolerance over the prior century, there the similarity ends between ESEA and EHCA and convention ally conceived policy. In each of these instances, policy initiation did not occur through traditional avenues or agents. With neither did interest-group speakers or representatives of schools, school districts, and state agencies play critical roles in the enactment phase. Rather, it was staff members-executive branch for ESEA and legislative branch for EHCA-who were instrumental in the design of the bill’s details and who brokered the political arrangements necessary for enactment.


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act


Identifying the roots of a public policy almost inevitably involves an infinite regress toward first causes. Those who have chronicled the origins of ESEA have traced the evolution of the act’s major ideas and the major actors. Suffice it to say here that the component ideas were in existence in advance of the assemblage of the act itself.4 ESEA was essentially an executive branch creation. Once receiving overall approval from the newly elected president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, White House and HEW staff fashioned a bill the components of which were artfully tailored so as to provide major interest groups and actors with strategic components important to them.


This ingenious packaging had much to do with the united front displayed by interest-group speakers during congressional hearings held on the bill. However, the necessary compromises had been struck well in advance of the bill’s submission to Congress. Also, initiators of these actions were not elected officials, interest-group speakers, or conventional agents in the policy process from school districts or state agencies. All of these were consulted, to be sure, but they were a supporting cast for the main actors, executive branch staff members. One anecdote suffices to illustrate the overall pattern.


The enactment strategy was intended to ensure that both House and Senate passed identical versions of the bill, thus eliminating the necessity for a joint conference committee to resolve differences. (Such conference committees had been a historic graveyard for many previously submitted major federal aid to education bills). Thus, when in the course of Senate hearings, Robert Kennedy, then the junior senator from New York, made embarrassing inquiries about the manner in which the effectiveness of the bill’s many programs would be assessed, executive branch lobbyists rapidly made peace.


They agreed on a federal evaluation policy to be included in the bill. Then they saw to the overnight insertion of an identically worded evaluation section in the House version of the bill. A much-dreaded conference committee was thus avoided.


On the floor of Congress, the bill was referred to more than once as the “Great Railroad Act of 1965.” Such sarcasm reflected the rapid enactment pace that its sponsors had orchestrated. The speed with which the bill was passed rendered it more difficult for critics to impede its progress. However, the price for such haste was the loss of political support, which often can be built by compromise and discussion during enactment. Perhaps as a consequence, from the time of enactment until the present, implementation of ESEA has been troubled. Those forces that had been compromised or finessed during the design and passage of the bill were much more reluctant to assent to the details of operation. A few examples are in order.


During enactment, communication with local school district and state officials was hurried or nonexistent. The speed with which the bill was designed and passed left little opportunity to inform those who would actually implement the program of its details. What communication did occur was often erroneous. Consequently, large numbers of local officials took ESEA, as the media frequently described it, as a form of general aid, funds from which could be used at the discretion of local officials to solve their day-to-day budget problems. This misunderstanding had eventually to be corrected through a complicated series of research studies and legislative amendments, the 1972 “comparability requirements.” Had local and state school officials been more heavily involved in the design and enactment of the legislation, they might have been more pliant participants at the time of implementation.


The policy process does not end with enactment and implementation. AS has been illustrated by the comparability regulations, there is a feedback loop wherein the effects of implementation can themselves influence an alteration of the initial policy. ESEA was unique among federal education programs in that it was the first that sought to formalize such a feedback loop.


As previously described, former Senator Robert Kennedy provoked insertion of an evaluation section in ESEA. His hope was that the systematic assessment of education programs would enable both local and federal officials to revise their statutory and operational efforts. Kennedy’s request was a surprise. In order to maintain momentum of the enactment strategy, quick action was needed in order to gain House acceptance of an identical evaluation provision.


Given the emphasis on speed, there is little wonder that local and state officials had scant understanding of the evaluation requirements and, ever since, have exhibited even less enthusiasm for such provisions. Perhaps no other legislative action has led to a larger waste of federal education funds. Local districts and other agencies religiously comply with the letter of evaluation requirements. In fact, however, few evaluations have resulted in information that is of use to local, state, or federal officials.5 For this reason, when Congress desired information about the effectiveness of ESEA Title I prior to a massive reauthorization in 1980, instead of utilizing ten years of accumulated evaluation results, it had to commission an entirely separate $5 million independent assessment to be conducted by the National Institute of Education. Local-level educators had been bypassed in the enactment phase and had been bullied in the implementation phase. Many had complied to the letter on the evaluation requirement. Still, somehow, they had won a part of the war.


Exclusion of local and state officials, except as consultants, had backfired in the late implementation phase. The strategy that was superbly successful in enactment of ESEA began to have dysfunctional consequences in the early 1970s. Rebellion of a sort built throughout the 1970s with administrators and school board organizations repeatedly decrying the burden of onerous federal regulations. By 1980, their complaints had received a more receptive audience in the form of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. The distinction is captured by the appointment process. Lyndon Baines Johnson had been able to ignore the views of local and state educational officials in the selection of his chief education spokesman, the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Francis Keppel, appointed by Johnson, previously had been an assistant to Harvard President James Bryant Conant and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He had had no experience as a local or state educationist. He had a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Rome, but no degrees in education. In contrast, President Reagan appointed as Secretary of Education a long-time local and state school official and chief state school officer, Terrell Bell. Bell took as his main agenda undoing federal regulations and restoring greater decision-making discretion to local school districts and states.


Education for All Handicapped Children Act


In 1975, ten years after enactment of ESEA, Congress passed yet another major piece of lower-education legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This act also differed from the conventional political pattern in its enactment phase. It has been in operation only since 1976. Hence, it is somewhat soon to offer a view about its implementation. However, given the similarities between its enactment processes and those of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the best prediction is that before much longer, EHCA will also experience an administration backlash as local and state education officials attempt to reshape the act into a form more consistent with their views.


EHCA did not have the benefit of a wide base of intense public conscious ness such as was the political environment for ESEA passage. However, whatever deficit existed on this dimension was amply compensated by two other conditions, a growing set of court decisions mandating equal protection for handicapped children and widespread, even if not sharply honed, public sympathy. Many states, prior to the 1970s, provided only the most minimal services for school-age handicapped children. Often, the more severe the student’s disability, the less public service was made available. The ground swell of opinion provoked by Brown v. Board of Education and the sub sequent civil rights movement had tendrils that eventually took root and blossomed in the form of court suits that plaintiffs hoped would expand the range of educational services available to handicapped students. By 1973, over thirty right-to-education lawsuits were in progress or had recently been decided. Some of these were highly publicized and dramatic, such as the previously referred to Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens v. Pennsylvania. Most others were in lower courts and lower keyed.


Lawsuits were a useful wedge for handicapped-student advocates who otherwise had suffered years of neglect at the hands of local and state school officials and legislative bodies. However, the judicial process was not completely satisfying. Ultimately, even if all court cases were favorable, the financial resources necessary for expanding school services would have to come from a legislative body.


Because of increasing publicity, fear that judicial opinions might result in distasteful mandates, or as a genuine belief that it was the right thing to do, both state and federal legislators increasingly paid attention to handicapped issues throughout the early 1970s. However, neither conventional interest groups such as teachers, administrators, or school board associations, nor local or state officials were particularly active in initiating legislative programs. Rather, as with ESEA, there was a somewhat shapeless over reaching approval that served as an umbrella legitimating specific efforts of one senator and several key congressional staff members. A major distinction is that, unlike ESEA-which was initiated and engineered to enactment by executive branch staff-crucial proponents were employees of the legislative branch in the instance of EHCA.


In 1976, the Democratic party hoped to have a major new education initiative for campaign purposes. Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey was the newly named chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. As with the Democratic party generally, Williams particularly desired an important issue for his committee. Williams had become informed about special education as a participant in national meetings conducted by the Education Commission of the States. All of these events predisposed him toward a special-education issue. One of William’s staff members also had an interest in special education, and she joined with an influential staff member from the House Select Committee on Education to form an effective team. They began to formulate the fundamental principles of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.


In the process, the team conferred frequently and sought ideas from interest groups. However, these were not the interest groups with which Congress typically dealt. Rather, it was organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund and the Council for Exceptional Children, not the American Association of School Administrators or the National Education Association, with whom they met. Indeed, it was not simply that there was an alternative group of lobbyists who had an opportunity to shape the bill, but it was an entire alternative policy network. The regular congressional staff who had worked on special-education issues for a decade, as well as important senators and congressmen, were themselves bypassed.


Not only was EHCA a maverick with regard to political processes and patterns, it was also unique in terms of its substance. In time, this uniqueness may also provoke the reshaping of its politics. It arose because education continues to be far more of an art than a science; an underlying pedagogical technology is elusive. Proponents of federal special-education funding were well aware that effective, comprehensive treatment models for handicapped students could not easily be specified by statute. Consequently, the strategy they adopted was to include in the legislation a due-process procedure that would offer the greatest chance that each handicapped child would receive appropriate instruction.


These EHCA-mandated procedures were designed by drawing heavily on the judgment of professional educators. Nevertheless, the procedures are premised on a highly legalistic model from which it is easily possible to infer substantial mistrust. Local school and district educators are required at many decision points to confer with parents, and parents are then permitted many appeals to higher authority should they be dissatisfied with professionals’ judgments of their children’s education programs. Too, parents were given the right to have counsel during meetings with school officials. So it was that many of the statutory procedures anticipate an adversary relationship between local school authorities and students and parents. This is in substantial contrast to the traditional legal view in which in loco parentis prevails, whereby school authorities are presumed sufficiently competent and well intentioned to stand in the place of parents in seeking the child’s welfare. However, proponents of EHCA were distrustful of school officials, and their feelings were manifested in the new procedures. This negative message was not initially, and still is not, lost on local authorities. However, public school administrators believed that somewhere they would have an opportunity in the implementation of the act to alter it.


The argument to this point can be summarized as follows. In the two major pieces of lower-education legislation during the Federal Education Era, enactment was more a consequence of alternative policy-initiating networks than of conventional “iron triangles” of executive branch officials, congressional committees, and interest groups cooperating as equals. These alternative initiating agents were able to capitalize on a favorable climate of public and political opinion in order to gain enactment of what theretofore had been unpopular legislative proposals, In the enactment process, conventional agents of educational policy initiative local and state education officials and education interest groups-were simply neutralized and finessed.6 However, as these major legislative acts moved further into the implementation phase, the opportunity for traditional policy networks to influence the reshaping of the programs became greater. What emerged is something of a new “iron law of entrenched interest retribution.“ Interest groups bypassed at one or another stage in the policy process simply await a subsequent opportunity to reassert their influence. Cynical observers have long characterized this phenomenon with the quip, “Politicians do not get mad, they simply get even.” The consequences of efforts to “get even” may have implications for future federal aid patterns, a point to which subsequent reference will be made.


The fact that major interest groups and conventional local and state education agents were not crucial or necessary for enactment of significant federal era education programs can be explained by the overwhelmingly supportive climate of public opinion at the time. However, it may be that once enacted, these statutes have triggered or contributed to the formation of a new education interest-group dynamic, major fragmentation and diversity. It may be the case that coalitions of interest groups, such as teachers, administrators, school board members, and state officials, which dominated state education politics in the pre and immediate post-World War II era, were doomed to eventual destruction. Collective bargaining may have been their death knell. However, passage of numerous federal aid programs in the 1960s and 1970s did little to impede this post-World War II atomization and may well have exacerbated such divisiveness.


Each new federal program seemed to spawn new associations and alignments of associations. In an effort to enlist greater lay participation in educational governance, federal education programs proliferated advisory committees at the national, state, and local levels as well as encouraging the employment of new classifications of administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals. Consequently, each of the highly publicized federal sponsored education programs came, over time, to be something of a solar system within which the program itself served as a major body around which orbited a number of newly created satellites. These satellites, whatever their size or degree of professionalization, seldom recognized the gratitational pull exerted by conventional association bodies such as school board, administrator, or teacher associations. On the contrary, while the latter frequently espoused federal aid that was more general than categorical, the former maintained their sovereignty all the more. The outcome was a weakened and less cohesive galaxy of interest groups than would otherwise probably have been the case.




In one sense, the Federal Era was ending from its inception. This was not so much a consequence of public opinion as it was of the dynamics involved in the enactment of both ESEA and EHCA. Public support for federal education programs remained at least neutral and perhaps positive throughout the 1970s. The reluctance was on the part of conventional educational policy actors, who had generally been excluded from the initial enactment process. As badly as the Federal Era categorical aid programs may have been needed by the nation as a whole, they were to enjoy primary support only from alternative or nonconventional educational interest groups such as the National Advisory Council for the Education of Disadvantaged Children, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under the Law.


The National Education Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and a large assortment of smaller K-12 special interest groups were certainly not opposed to federal support. However, the categorical aid form was not particularly to their liking, and it certainly was not of their making. Their allegiance to it was low from the time of its passage. Teachers, school administrators, and state education department officials began to propose changes in the two major federal categorical aid programs from the outset. Moreover, such groups were always ripe for proposals to alter the form of federal aid, particularly if the new form provided them with greater discretion over the expenditure of such federal funds. It should not be construed from the fact that ESEA was passed without major assistance from conventional political actors that they had exhausted their political capital. On the contrary, events during the Nixon administration demonstrated that, under specified conditions, school district and state officials had substantial influence. The issue was evident in education appropriations.


During the latter half of Richard Nixon’s initial term in office, the economy was plagued by persistent inflation. The president’s economic advisors repeatedly counseled reduction in federal outlays in order to dampen spending and thereafter to slow consumer demand. For a short time, the president even imposed wage and price ceilings, certainly a drastic action by a Republican chief executive committed to a free-market economy. Because such a large proportion of the federal budget is comprised of relatively uncontrollable outlays, for example, veterans’ pensions, social security benefits, and debt service, the president’s budget officers attempted to reduce federal expenditures in controllable areas, one of which was education.


Consequently, for fiscal years 1969-1971 the president submitted budgets to Congress that called for substantially reduced education appropriations. The traditional education appropriations pattern was for the president’s budget to reflect an actual dollar increase over the preceding year’s expenditures. The House Appropriations Committee would grant an increase, but not quite as much as the president requested. The full House would then accept its committee’s report, and the Senate Appropriations Committee would thereafter provide for a little less than the president’s budget but more than the House had granted.


But the Nixon proposals to reduce education spending posed a substantial threat to this process and education interest groups. So they devised a combative strategy, forming what was known initially as the Emergency Committee for Full Funding of Education Programs (ECFFEP). This umbrella operation consisted of approximately twenty-five special-interest groups encompassing both conventional actors (teachers, administrators, and state officials), and the earlier-noted alternative policy network concerned with issues such as handicapped students. That is, the committee was comprised of groups that on other occasions had actively opposed one another’s interests. While they were a potentially competitive group of allies, they were also hardened into a resolute and influential lobbying organization by virtue of a relatively simple decision rule. If an authorizing statute existed, then the members of this federation pledged their efforts to seek its full funding. This commitment did not extend necessarily to proposed new education programs, only to those already enacted.


The committee was successful beyond what otherwise would have been predicted. Under the skilled leadership of its lobbyist, Charles Lee, the committee brought pressure to bear so that the House and Senate Appropriations committees allocated more to education programs than Nixon pro posed. More surprisingly yet, appropriation committee recommendations were themselves repeatedly overturned on the House and Senate floor in favor of even more money for education. For years, appropriation committees had been one of Congress’s most sacrosanct components. Only on the rarest of circumstances would an appropriations committee report be overturned. But the committee contributed to such reversals in 1969 (Orfield 1975).


The resignation of, Nixon and an upturn in the nation’s economic indicators dampened the threat and the Emergency Committee faded. However, aside from its own drama, the committee episode illustrates an important point in the argument being constructed here. Whereas ESEA and EHCA were the products primarily of an alternative set of policy actors, the conventional networks of educators and school district and state officials had by no means faded from the political scene. The Emergency Committee demonstrated fully the ability of conventional interest groups’ to influence federal government education policy. They awaited only more favorable circumstances and more direct manifest threats to their interest in maintaining the structure of federal programs. But this coalition could maintain its momentum only to protect what already had been enacted. It could not initiate. Moreover, it is doubtful that it could have been effective at all in the face of both hostile executive and legislative branches.




Whereas conventional policy actors were waiting for an opportunity to take a more active role in shaping federal education policy, a conducive climate of public opinion was not available. Throughout the 1970s, public opinion continued to be neutral toward or nonsupportive of an expanded federal role, or at least displayed little enthusiasm for a greatly altered federal role. To be sure, there were still highly visible education policy endeavors. For example, in his 1976 presidential campaign, Carter committed himself to the establishment of a federal department of education. Aside from the substantive arguments for and against this, the gesture was primarily symbolic. The fact of an education department did not by itself do much for the day-to-day lot of pupils, teachers, and school administrators. But it did acknowledge the fact that Carter had a strong political obligation to the National Education Association.


Probably more important than establishment of the education department was the fact that Congress came remarkably close to enacting a tuition-tax credit plan in 1979. Such a bill actually passed in the House and failed in the Senate only after Carter made clear his intention to veto the bill. Such a bill, should it have been enacted, would have meant the largest assistance the federal government had provided nonpublic schools since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1926 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters.




By the 1980 presidential campaign, public opinion was clearly moving away from the former position of firm support for greater federal involvement in social policy. As a candidate, Ronald Reagan was at once fostering and taking advantage of the shift. Campaign rhetoric regarding the evils of government intervention and the necessity of deregulation was directed at a broad array of federally sponsored efforts, but education was certainly among them. Reagan had reacted negatively to the formation of the Department of Education, stating that he thought it ought to be abolished. He stood strongly for “deregulating” education, and, more radical yet, favored tuition tax credits. The depth and consistency of public feeling about these issues was arguable, but there was no misreading the breadth. Reagan won the presidency with a landslide of electoral votes. He captured a larger share of the popular vote than had Carter four years before. Equally of note, the Republicans captured the


U.S. Senate, the first time they had dominated that body since 1954. A June 1981 poll conducted for Time magazine confirmed the extent to which public opinion had shifted since the easy acceptance of Johnson’s War on Poverty and accompanying social programs. In mid-1981, 62 percent of those queried responded positively to the statement: “Government should stop regulating business and protecting the consumer” and 70 percent concurred that “government has become far too involved in areas of people’s lives” (Time 1981). In a Gallup Poll conducted a week later, 58 percent of a national sample responded in favor of the Reagan administration’s proposed cuts in federal spending, education included (San Francisco Chronicle 1981).


Both electoral results and public opinion have shown themselves on other occasions to be fluid and shallow. The only stable component of such measures is that they will certainly change again at some subsequent point in time. However, for the moment, the best prediction one can offer is that the favorable climate of opinion that once so easily supported the Federal Era has now shifted. This conclusion, when taken in tandem with the fragmentation of education interest groups or at least the readiness of conventional interest groups and education actors to alter federal educational policy, suggests strongly that a different era is emerging. We turn now to a consideration of what the components of a federal education program might be in a time of change.




The argument to this point has had two major components. First, the Federal Era of the 1960s and 1970s was an anomaly. There was broad public support for social-action programs, but not necessarily for education programs of the specificity that eventually were designed by executive and legislative staff members. The major federal programs for the 1960s and 1970s however needed and effective, have never been adopted or defended strongly by conventional interest groups. Indeed, it can be argued that the Federal Era categorical programs have proliferated narrow-based associations at the cost of fragmenting conventional education associations further.


The second major contention here is that, aside from whatever interest groups did or did not do in the Federal Era, the broad climate of popular acceptance that then existed for public programs is now becoming substantially more dilute. Consequently, neither executive nor legislative branch officials, should they be predisposed, could so easily today fashion a major federal aid to education package in the absence of support from a broad span of education agents from local and state levels. In short, what happened in the past few decades is unlikely to be a good predictor of the next two. Several important conditions have changed and are likely to continue to change.




The decade-long slide in enrollments will reverse itself during the mid-1980s. However, it is not likely in this century to return to its 1971 peak of 51 million K-12 students. Since physical facilities presently exist to accommodate the forthcoming minor expansion7 and since pupil-teacher ratios have become much more favorable over the last decade, it is difficult to imagine substantial public concern over enrollment increases.


Aside from enrollments, the shifts in population composition argue against education’s becoming an intense electoral issue for the next ten to twenty years. The overall population is aging, a smaller proportion of voters has school-age children,8 and a greater proportion of public school children is from households that have a history of lower voter turnout.




It would appear foolhardy to specify either economic growth or decline over the next one or two decades. However, it is reasonable to assert that major new federal initiatives probably cannot be supported fiscally except under two conditions: (1) that the economy advances sufficiently to provide a fiscal dividend for social programs or (2) that existing education programs are curtailed so that new ones can take up whatever revenue slack results. The major point is that, given the dimensions of altered public opinion, shifting demographics, and fragmented interest groups to which we have already referred, there is little likelihood of education programs’ coming into added federal resources at the expense of federal initiatives in other areas. If there is intense competition for relatively fixed federal revenues, education will do well to protect its base. New education programs under such conditions seem highly unlikely. The major possible exception to this prediction will be addressed in a subsequent section.


Given these postulated four conditions: (1) an altered climate of public acceptance for major social programs, (2) a fragmented educational interest group community, (3) unfavorable demography, and (4) an uncertain economy, what is the future likely to be for federal education aid? Three possible futures appear reasonable under these conditions. One assumes that the present climate of negative public opinion is maintained for a sufficient period to influence federal aid to education. The second scenario assumes that either public opinion, electoral politics, or both become more favorably disposed for federal aid to education. The third prediction of the future encompasses the unpredictable, the possibility that either domestic, international, or galactic events will result in a crisis of sufficient proportions to provoke a federal response similar to the National Aid to Education Act passed by Congress following the Soviet launching of Sputnik.




Should the present climate of public opinion regarding social programs generally and in education specifically continue, one or a combination of two outcomes appears possible. The first of these futures involves continued efforts at deregulation and categorical-aid-program consolidation. The second dimension is an effort to gain congressional enactment of a tuition tax-credit plan.


In the course of his electoral campaign, President Reagan voiced support of a tuition-tax-credit plan similar to the Moynihan-Packwood proposal that nearly passed Congress in 1979. However, Reagan and his staff have subsequently displayed ambivalence regarding the idea. The hesitation may not reflect reluctance or distaste for the idea so much as a question of priorities. The president also campaigned diligently for a substantial cut in the personal and corporate income tax, a reduction in federal spending, an increase in defense preparedness, and a dampening of inflation. Not all of these objectives are compatible. Reducing taxes jeopardizes a balanced budget, similarly with added defense spending. However, a major component of the anti-inflation strategy is a reduction in federal deficit spending. The outcome of this whirlpool of competing objectives is a lower priority for tuition tax credits because such a plan is estimated to reduce federal revenues by anywhere from $3 to $5 billion. Regardless of presidential commitment to the tuition-tax-credit idea, a substantial number of senators, perhaps sensing public support for nonpublic schools or a diffuse dissatisfaction with public schooling, have sponsored a bill, appear to be committed to its passage, and have President Reagan’s support for its passage.


Conventional and newly organized education interest groups and school related officials will assuredly oppose the tuition-tax-credit plan on grounds that it jeopardizes public schooling, assurances from the Reagan administration education secretary notwithstanding. Whether such opponents can prevail against a Senate that now appears more predisposed than its 1979 predecessor and a House of Representatives that, albeit by an exceedingly narrow margin, passed such a bill in the same year remains to be seen. The resolution of the issue probably rides on the extent to which opponents are willing to inflame antichurch feelings generally and anti-Catholic feeling particularly. If tuition tax credits are made into a religious issue, passage is in greater doubt. Constitutionality is yet another test, but one that will subsequently take place in an arena less dominated by political forces.


The other possible policy direction for the federal government in the 1980s is the continued consolidation of Federal Era categorical programs into so called block grants. This also has been an active Reagan administration proposal, one pursued initially with more vigor than the tuition-tax-credit idea.


The president’s proposed legislation in 1981 would have consolidated approximately thirty existing statutory authorities into two major block grants. The final outcome of such proposals was substantially more modest than the administration had initially sought. Thirty-three programs with expenditures slightly in excess of $.5 billion were combined. Major conventional interest groups desired a larger or more encompassing consolidation. Many chief state school officers expressed their disappointment at the failure to include ESEA and EHCA. Similarly, the National School Board Association, while satisfied with the general direction, expressed the hope that future block-grant efforts would proceed further.


The fact that several large federal education programs were excluded from consolidation may testify to the influence of newly formed categorical-aid interest groups and their lobbying ability. Such is not likely to be the case, however. A more probable explanation is simply timing. Consolidation proposals were brought before Congress coincidentally with the Reagan administration’s federal budget reduction and income tax cut proposals. It may well have been a matter of priority, with consolidation taking a back seat to other of the president’s more intense concerns. In fact, at a subsequent address before the National Conference of State Legislators, the president suggested strongly that in subsequent years he would return to ask a greater consolidation of education programs from Congress. Thus, if public opinion and the economy continue to be neutral or unfavorably disposed toward federal aid to education, and interest groups continue to be fragmented, the larger likelihood is that more consolidation will occur, federal regulations will be reduced, funding will be held stable or, at best, approximate only increases consistent with inflation.




In the event the economy blossoms and the Democratic party recaptures the presidency either in 1984 or 1988, it is conceivable that new federal education program initiatives could be mounted. Candidates for such new programs would be bills to assist states in equalizing their school finance arrangements, to protect city school districts from what to many of them appear to be ever more intense threats of bankruptcy, or to assist the nation generally in creating a larger supply of more ably trained teachers. Since such proposals, given the assumptions of a flourishing economy, need not take federal funding away from existing programs and because proposals for school finance equalization, aid to cities, and teacher training subsidy would probably be attractive to education interest groups generally, such programs might have a good chance of passage. This assumes also that proponents of existing programs such as ESEA and EHCA were satisfied that new initiatives did not jeopardize their existing program funding and thus drive a deeper wedge between conventional and categorical-aid interest groups.


As attractive as such a future might appear for federal education aid proponents, it seems unlikely to occur. The assumptions are too great. If the economy improves, then a Democratic recapturing of the White House is less likely. If the economy continues to wobble or slide toward lower productivity and higher inflation, then, even if the Democratic party did ascend, the fiscal dividend needed for new programs would not likely be present.




American technology and military intelligence were caught off balance by the 1957 launching of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik. The resultant public distress might have been predicted, but the eventual faulting of America’s school system for the failure of the U.S. space program was difficult to accept logically. The decision not to mount a major space effort had been made by President Eisenhower several years previously. American educators had little to do with such a decision. Nevertheless, the foment served to catalyze Congress into the 1958 enactment of the National Defense Education Act, which provided federal matching funds for the improvement of mathematics, science, and foreign-language instruction at the K-12 level.


An unpredicted set of events could occur again and trigger a dramatic or highly visible new federal aid to education program. Such an event need have little connection with existing patterns of public opinion, the state of the economy, or the political party in power at the time. The eventual shape of such an unpredicted program might depend in part on interest-group interactions, but even this should not be taken for granted. Mounting “cold war” tensions and recent reports on the Soviet education system’s alleged superiority in areas such as mathematics instruction suggest that another “national defense” catch-up is possible in education. Similarly, increasing publicity regarding the nation’s shortage of science and mathematics teachers is fueling fears of an American inability to compete technologically and commercially with Western European and Asian nations. If so, then science, mathematics, and foreign languages could get yet another boost from federal funding. However, not only are the causes for such events unpredictable, so is the content or focus of the bill that would result.


The federal government has never played a major role in the support of American schooling; this has been far more the primary burden of local and state governments. Where it has occurred at all, the historic role of the federal government in providing financial support for elementary and secondary education has had two dimensions. One long-standing effort has been to provide funding for vocational education and other programs intended to enhance the productivity of the nation’s work force. A second long-standing effort has been to facilitate equal educational opportunity. From time to time other purposes emerge and may generate substantial political and public notice, but they have eventually faded.


Proponents of the expanded federal role might well wish that the current period of fiscal retrenchment would be but an aberration in what they hope will be a long-term trend of increased federal support. Though possible, such a prognosis is probably inaccurate. It may prove more valid to view the 1965-1975 Federal Era as an aberration. Forces accounting for enactment and support of ESEA and EHCA were anomalous and probably will not be repeated. Consequently, a more reliable future for federal aid to education will be the continuation of what now exists, though the form and level of funding may be altered. If such is to be the case, the task of supporting and improving public schools will continue to fall to local districts and state governments.




1 Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954); and Brown v. Board of Education 349 U.S. 294 (1955).


2 Lau v. Nichols 483 F2d 791 (9th Cor., 1973); PennsylvaniaAssociation of Retarded Citizens v. Pennsylvania 834 F. Supp. 1257 (ED Pa. 1971) 343 F Supp. 279 (ED Pa. 1972); and Mills v. Board of Education 348 F. Supp. 866 (DCC 1972).


3 Histories of ESEA are provided by Bailey and Mosher (1967), Meranto (1967), and Guthrie (1968).


4 The task of stitching the several ESEA ideas together fell principally to a high-level executive branch task force chaired by the then president of the Carnegie Corporation, John Gardner, who subsequently was to administer the act as Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Gardner relied heavily on Francis Keppel to do the staff work. For more detail on the Gardner task, see Kearney (1967).


5 An insightful analysis of ESEA Title I evaluation policies is contained in an article by Jane L. David (1981).


6 The actions of executive and legislative branch staff members can be explained by the theories of Niskanen (1971).


7 At least in most cities and suburbs, school plant capacity should be adequate to contain 1980s enrollment increases. Rural areas are less clear in this regard.


8 In 1972, 20 percent of those voting in the national elections were projected to be parents of public school children. By 1980, this figure had fallen to 16 percent and was still decreasing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 3, 1983, p. 672-689
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 792, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:20:30 PM

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About the Author
  • James Guthrie
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    JAMES W. GUTHRIE holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and presently is Chairman of the Department of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests are concentrated on questions of governmental policy in education and school finance.
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