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The Role of Interest Groups in the Formation of Educational Policy: Past Practice and Future Trends

by Paul E. Peterson & Barry G. Rabe - 1983

A review of major federal education programs indicates that educational interest groups have played a modest role in shaping policy. Typically, these groups have ridden existing political and judicial currents to pass programs, and then have concentrated on maintaining their interests. Future roles are discussed. (Source: ERIC)

Interest-group activity ranks among the most visible contributors to policy change in modern industrial societies. American myths, and a good deal of political science literature, suggest not only a high public profile for interest groups but profound policy influence as well (Dahl 1961; Truman 1965). For many sympathetic analysts, interest groups serve not only as reservoirs of pertinent information but, even more, as critical intermediaries between the state and the public. Many critical scholars contend that group activities are so pervasive that they can hardly be distinguished from the activities of agencies, bureaus, legislative committees, and other bodies that exercise formal policymaking authority. In their view, the power of well-organized groups is so extensive that it virtually isolates the policymaking process from other outside influences (McConnell 1966; Lowi 1969). In short, whether groups are praised or blamed, their power is often assumed.

Analyses of federal education policy are not excepted from this interpretation. Educational interest groups were blamed for policy stagnation in the 1950s, applauded for their unified, vigorous efforts to maintain federal funding in the early 1970s, credited with a presidential victory in 1976, and hailed (or condemned) for creating a new Department of Education in 1978.

They have appeared regularly on the stage where federal education policy is determined, and have expanded in number and membership as federal programs have fragmented and proliferated. Such visibility could conveniently be translated into an assumption that interest groups play an innovative and influential role in the shaping of federal education policy. However, many studies of group influence may confuse high visibility with political muscle. Because interest groups often need to show their members that they “make a difference,” group leaders are anxious to provide glowing accounts of battles fought and wars won. The same events viewed in historical or comparative perspective, however, may reveal that a group, while finding itself on the winning side, did not necessarily contribute significantly to the victory. Indeed, an equally if not more compelling set of counter studies found group influence to be more circumscribed (Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1972; Wilson 1973). Especially when analyzing the forces introducing new policies, the main focus of this article, one seldom finds organized groups to be the vital factor. While they at times climb on a new policy bandwagon, change is usually more the product of national crisis, presidential leadership, or a powerful wave of public opinion. Groups, in some respects, may be more effective at retarding innovation than promoting it (Lowi 1969; Wilson 1973). Once programs are in place, groups help sustain and marginally expand their operations. Yet, even when fighting to hold their own, groups are not always successful. Their favorite programs and most cherished policies can be swamped by some new political tide oblivious to preexisting arrangements. The tidal wave sweeping over educational interest groups in the early 1980s dramatically illustrates the extent to which organized group influence can be rendered impotent.

The historical role of interest groups in the formation of federal education policy has been quite consistent with this more circumscribed view.1 Instead of serving as agents of change, interest groups consistently respond to political circumstances and are confined to what the executive and legislative branches are prepared to consider. They often maintain political support for favored policies by supplying information, publicity, and pressure, but they are rarely the sculptors that substantially shape new federal programs. When groups do exert influence on education policy, they are often organizations that either have broad social objectives (such as church-state relations or civil rights) or develop specialized proposals that gain political leverage through findings of the judicial system.

These latter cases, however, are exceptions to the general nature of group activity, largely confined to such cases as handicapped and bilingual education in the mid-1970s. These cases are anomalies among the plethora of federal elementary and secondary education programs in which groups have demonstrated little penchant for policy innovation and systematic influence on the process of policymaking. Yet these cases, like the majority of cases with more modest group roles, fit neither the conception of a dynamic process of group influence heralded by traditional pluralists nor the presumption of pernicious group control over program development suggested by liberal critics. Instead, an activist judiciary embraced both special and bilingual education and compelled Congress to act in unprecedented fashion. Groups effectively rode this crest and exerted significant influence on the programs eventually enacted.

The limited role of interest groups in congressional sessions of the early 1980s was no historical anomaly. A review of major federal education programs indicates that groups have played a very modest role in shaping education programs in the past. From the Smith-Hughes Act, which first established a significant federal commitment to education during World War I, to the very recent efforts to pare funding and programs, interest groups have rarely been located at the forefront of policy influence. Most programs can best be attributed to a distinct set of political circumstances that enabled the legislative and executive branches to take new policy steps. Just as a nationwide belief in the vocational education panacea propelled Smith-Hughes, so President Reagan’s political agenda, riding a quite different wave of public opinion, reduced the numbers of categorical programs and cut educational funding levels. In these two instances, and most federal education policy episodes in between, interest groups have largely been relegated to the periphery of the policymaking process. They have rarely been innovative and able to determine federal policy. Their greatest impact has been to ride existing political currents, affix themselves to programs once created and diligently try to maintain them, and subdue policy alternatives they find egregious.

Although groups have been diverse and publicly prominent, they give little indication of having served as a driving force behind policymaking at more than a few points during the 120 years of federal activity in education. They are, indeed, most clearly understood if seen as followers, and not leaders, of political trends and the political process. They have demonstrated some effectiveness in maintaining programs once enacted, but only rarely do they show substantial capacity for influence or innovation.

These characteristics of group influence will be illustrated through a review of the development of federal education policy from its earliest stages to the present time. The political circumstances surrounding the passage of each major piece of legislation will be considered, along with a discussion of the major policy actors and the extent to which interest groups influenced the program that eventually resulted. Each of the major periods of federal education policy activity will receive attention, beginning with the post-Civil War period. We focus in greatest detail, however, on the avalanche of categorical programs developed in the past three decades. This latter discussion will consider both the trickle of programs that began in the 1950s and their subsequent exponential rise in following decades. In addition, the process of policymaking in the early stages of the Reagan administration will be considered, as well as the role of interest groups during this period.


Education interest groups emerged on the

Washington scene in the years following the Civil War, but they found their political impact circumscribed in ways not dramatically different from those of their successors in subsequent generations. The capacity to inform and prod certain representatives into action was demonstrated, but this did not culminate in the manifestation of any noteworthy federal policies. Instead, interest groups were more potent when they attacked legislative proposals that seemed to threaten the status quo.

One of the most dramatic-and earliest-renditions of this pattern of influence through veto occurred in the 1870s when a variety of forces worked to blunt the proposal of George Hoar, the Republican representative from Rhode Island, who sought to establish a “national system of education” that included federal standards to be implemented by the states. “Violent blasts of denunciation” were issued by diverse education interest groups including the National Education Association (NEA) (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Forthcoming). In this rare instance, even Catholic organizations joined ranks with the public educators in voicing opposition. Both feared an intractable federal influence, although they perceived the threat in somewhat differing terms.

Interest-group activity increased in successive decades, but it still found little congressional receptivity to demands for broad federally funded programs. The battle for general aid to public education, for example, was an unending struggle that encountered changing obstacles. From the beginning, teacher organizations, with the help of their labor allies and some backing from other educational groups, faced the opposition of business, farm, and patriotic groups that considered education a local matter that should be free of federal shackles. Immediately after World War II, general aid to public education began to gain serious attention, but was bedeviled by the problem of nonpublic schools. On the one side, congressmen with strong Catholic constituencies came under pressure to include aid to nonpublic schools in any program, while on the other side, Protestant groups and many public educators felt that such assistance was a violation of the separation of church and state as protected by the First Amendment. This controversy was temporarily quieted in the 1950s, but was soon superseded by the even more intractable problem of school segregation. After the Brown decision declared segregated schools unconstitutional, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) insisted that no federal monies be given to segregated schools, a provision that was stoutly resisted by representatives and senators from southern states. A ritualistic procedure evolved as Adam Clayton Powell, the black representative from

Harlem , would regularly affix his anti-segregation amendment to education legislation. The amendment received the support of northern Republican representatives, who were eager to establish a pro-civil rights record. However, many of these same Republicans were opposed to general school aid, whether or not it went to segregated schools, and they then voted to defeat the bill with the help of southern Democrats who were politically unable to support a law hastening desegregation.

School-aid supporters attempted to gain votes with various modifications of their proposals, such as focusing on monies for construction purposes instead of teacher salaries or other current operating expenses. This milder form of federal aid secured some additional support, as it carried fewer implications of federal control and made a more modest funding commitment. Catholics, too, felt that this more limited federal program was less threatening to nonpublic education. But it was often difficult to hold the pro-school aid coalition together around a compromise formula. The teacher organizations, in particular, often felt that it was better to forgo passage of any narrowed legislation and campaign instead against congressmen who frustrated their broader objectives. Two of the most astute analysts of this period, Frank Munger and Richard Fenno, observed that NEA’s “insistence on teachers’ salary provisions as the price of their wholehearted support . . . severely restricted the legislative maneuverability of their Congressional cohorts.” In the words of one Democrat, “They want the moon. Their attitude is that they might as well try a big bite and go down fighting rather than to establish a new area of federal responsibility in a small scale reasonable way” (Munger and Fenno 1962, 165-66).

But it would be wrong to blame defeat solely-or even largely-on the zealotry of organized education groups. Opposition to federal participation ran deep, and public support was too lackluster to provide a mandate for new programs. In fact, the conflict over general school aid touched so many sensitive nerves in the body politic that groups with only a marginal stake in education often had at least as much influence as did any of the more specifically school-oriented organizations. During the 1940s the controversy engaged not only the Catholic archdioceses but also the National Council of Churches. In the 1950s southerners and civil rights groups pushed NEA and its allies from center stage. Moreover, AFL-CIO staunchly backed federal aid proposals throughout the controversy, while the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and many patriotic groups consistently opposed “creeping” federal control. Above all, partisan political conflicts between the two major political parties profoundly affected the course of the general school-aid controversy. In light of these forces, school groups had only marginal influence and policy innovation was negligible.


These types of obstacles have consistently impeded passage of a general federal education aid program. But they did not thwart all federal activity, and in fact promoted a more narrowly focused set of strategies. What could not be gained by frontal assault was secured-unwittingly and only in part-by flanking movements and end runs. If a general aid bill could not pass Congress, more narrowly defined and relatively inexpensive proposals that addressed specific needs were occasionally more successful. The federal role in education expanded not by any overall set of planned policies but by segmented accretion. The federal mission was compartmentalized; its eventual amalgam of categorical programs largely escaped embroilment in the religious, racial, and ideological disputes that marked the general aid controversy.

However, even in the development of these categorical programs interest-group activity was more the product than the cause of policy innovation. Broad, national strategic concerns-and not influential groups-were the driving force behind the three most significant policy innovations: vocational education, impact aid, and the National Defense Education Act. Although interest groups played only marginal roles in their original passage, the groups embraced these programs and helped sustain them after the initial impetus had passed. As Stephen Bailey observed, “The dramatic increase in federal contracts, grants, and formula aid served as a magnet to draw distant association headquarters like iron filings to the field of force of the nation’s capital” (Bailey 1975, ix). Once spoils became available in

Washington , groups tailored their respective missions to the general purpose of the funding source.

The oldest among the pre-1960s triumvirate of categorical programs, the Smith-Hughes Act, set a pattern by which a major national concern gave rise to national educational legislation in an area previously reserved to state and local school districts. Smith-Hughes emerged at a time of mounting public concern about the challenge posed by growing German industrial might, a strength that some believed was facilitated by that country’s elaborate system of vocational education. Many political and industrial leaders wondered aloud whether the

United States possessed a work force with sufficient training to meet the material needs of a world war or an industrial economy that was increasingly technical. Vocational education was widely touted as the answer by educators, businessmen, and labor leaders alike. Views differed over how vocational education should be organized. Businessmen wanted the establishment of separate schools closely aligned to particular industries, while labor and school people wanted vocational education integrated into regular public school programming. These differences, however, were compromised in the face of an increasing German threat. All groups, together with the public in general, rallied behind Smith-Hughes, which was expected to meet the “great and crying need” for vocational education (Lazerson and Grubb 1974, 28).

Interest-group activity helped to stabilize and perpetuate vocational education policy in subsequent decades. The law has been amended and modified repeatedly over the years, but it has generally claimed the support of the American Vocational Association (AVA), which many claim to be the “granddad” of all educational interest groups. While this title overlooks the earlier role of the National Education Association, it does correctly point to the fact that more specialized educational interests have long experienced the greatest relative success. Even though AVA seems to have been only a marginal factor in the initial establishment of Smith-Hughes, it did help preserve the program during ensuing decades, long after the luster of vocational education had begun to fade. The allocation of funding-and the program itself-has historically conformed to the southern agrarian bias of AVA and vocational education more generally. Although funds were distributed to all states, vocational monies were long channeled disproportionately to rural areas and for agriculturally related occupational training. By supporting such an emphasis, AVA ingratiated itself with congressional committees that tended to be dominated by southerners who enjoyed high rank and seniority. During its heyday, it could even be said that “the position of AVA virtually determined the government’s vocational education policy” (Summerfield 1974, 36).

This attribution, however, stems more from AVA’s long-standing visibility in federal education policy rather than any demonstrable effectiveness in producing change. The concept of vocational education also retained general popularity in subsequent decades, especially during periods of rising unemployment. The program was a relatively quiet, noncontroversial one with its purpose seemingly noble and of potential long-term contribution to the economic well-being of the nation. When AVA articulated the need for federal assistance to help maintain existing programs, it appeared influential in part because it faced little in the way of organized opposition. Unable to dramatically expand the program in the 1940s and 1950s however, this premier vocational education interest group was limited to a supportive role, one that maintained existing programs rather than one that served as a catalyst for expansion or change.

The limited influence of AVA on national policy was best demonstrated by the change in vocational education policy that occurred during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Candidate John Kennedy promised AVA that he would expand vocational programs, but his administration translated that commitment into a view of vocational education that diverged substantially from the AVA perspective. The administration and an increasingly urbanized Congress contended that vocational monies should help prepare students for more technically sophisticated occupations in growing segments of the economy. They were particularly interested in attempting to offset minority unemployment in central cities. The new leadership of the Office of Education also wanted to assume more supervisory and administrative responsibility over the use of vocational funds. Furthermore, a national commission on vocational education called by Kennedy recommended abandonment of long-standing allocation formulae, which were skewed in favor of agricultural regions and programs. AVA resisted these threats to the status quo, and the resulting legislative proposal was a compromise between administration proposals and AVA concerns. But the assassination of President Kennedy made further resistance by AVA to this new agenda untenable and the law quickly passed Congress to become one of the first major planks of the Great Society (Kliever 1965).

Aid to federally impacted areas paralleled vocational education in that it was also a creature of political circumstances that cannot be attributed to the actions of education interest groups. Impact aid had strong defense overtones because its initial emphasis was compensation for education services in areas adjacent to military installations. It was revised at numerous junctures and emerged as a broad program designed to correct the additional burdens imposed on local areas by the presence of concentrations of federal employees.

Table 1. Federal Expenditures for Educational Programs by the office of Education, 1960-1982 (Millions of Dollars)

Fiscal Year











































for the



















for the













school aid

















State block





SOURCES: Digest of Education Statistics, 1960-80 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1968-1980); “House Committee Suggests 1983 Funding for Federal Education Programs,” Education Times, October 18, 1982, pp. 4-5; and Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 1983 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982).

and their families. The frequent program alterations consistently broadened the number of “federally impacted” communities eligible for federal assistance, although the recent Reagan revisions have restored a near-exclusive military orientation.

The first impact aid program was created on a temporary basis during World War II and was reestablished and broadened in scope in 1950 after two House subcommittees jointly reported that the federal presence was creating severe burdens in many school districts. Since that time, impact aid has emerged as a political favorite in Congress because of its wide distribution and at the local level because of its relative lack of administrative requirements. Major interest groups, however, have been uncharacteristically quiet in impact aid debates during the past three decades, and have not exerted particular influence to assure its continuation, substantially increase its funding, or alter its emphasis. The one exception to this generalization is the highly specialized group representing districts receiving impact aid, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which was quite successful in maintaining and expanding congressional funding for the program until the Reagan administration (See Table 1).

When Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the last of the early categoricals, it was once again largely oblivious to the concerns of education interest groups. The program was tailored by Eisenhower administration and congressional legislative experts in response to the wave of public concern over the nation’s education system that was provoked by the successful Soviet launching of Sputnik. Certain aspects of what eventually became NDEA were under consideration prior to Sputnik, but the perceived threat to American defense galvanized support for a proposal to use federal dollars to improve the nation’s scientific education programs. Indeed, the religious and racial issues that submerged other general aid proposals were surmounted in this instance. Parochial school advocates did obtain support for, a small program of loans for private schools, but other major interest groups, including those particularly concerned with racial segregation, went largely unheeded. “General aid proponents, like the NEA, were disappointed by the size and scope of the measure,” but “skillful [congressional] leadership and an atmosphere that favored action enabled the bill to ‘breeze’ through both houses of Congress” (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Forthcoming, 59). Many large groups were generally excluded from making any substantial input initially, and they had only minimal contact with it in subsequent years because of its principal emphasis on supplies and equipment for science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction. Funding levels consistently remained modest despite legislative alterations that multiplied the number of curricular areas eligible for funds.

The diffusion of NDEA’s purposes, and its eventual incorporation into the consolidated programs section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), may be due in part to a lack of specialized group support. Unlike vocational education, which has always been backed by AVA, NDEA never won the same intense, focused support from a group with a single-minded commitment to science and math education. Lacking such support, NDEA never expanded much beyond its original size and eventually disappeared as a distinctive program (see Table 1). We do not know whether the absence of such a group contributed to the demise of NDEA as a distinctive program, but there is nonetheless the suggestion that group support is most valuable in sustaining programs during the quiet years after the traumas that gave rise to their birth have passed.


The elections of 1960 and 1964 demonstrated how rapidly political paradigms can be restructured and policy alternatives can be reformulated into substantive legislation. Broad coalitions were formed during the 1960s to line up behind compromise positions largely shaped by executive and legislative branch leaders.

Interest-group visibility clearly soared as education became an increasingly prominent federal issue, but the significance of its policy influence may not have risen proportionately with either its public image or the expansion in federal programs and funding.

The most dramatic manifestation of the changed political circumstances of the 1960s was, of course, the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law provided for greatly increased support for public education, but it hardly took the form that traditional education interest groups had long advocated. Instead of a program of general aid, the legislation concentrated resources on educationally disadvantaged children living in low-income areas. Offered as part of the Great Society’s campaign against poverty, the policy was addressed to problems of discrimination and racial unrest, matters that had previously been barriers to passage of legislation. The proposal itself was developed by a secret task force created by the Johnson administration shortly after the president had been reelected in a landslide along with an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic majority in Congress. It was proposed in the very beginning of the 1965 session of Congress and was passed so quickly and with so little deliberation on the floor of Congress that it became widely known as the “Great Railroad Act of 1965.”

In order to keep the bill from becoming bogged down in subcommittee debates and group demands, it was passed in identical form in both houses of Congress, thereby precluding the need for a conference committee that might have become a focal point of group pressure (Bailey and Mosher 1968). Presidential support was so intense and the balance of power in Congress so one-sided that groups realized that nothing would stop this policy innovation. Groups made concessions and accepted policy proposals that in other circumstances they might have fought bitterly. Parochial school groups, for example, “believed they might be written out of a massive and permanent federal aid program” if recalcitrant on ESEA; public school groups, on the other hand, “feared that a failure to cooperate on the legislation would produce dire consequences [for them] during implementation” (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Forthcoming). In the words of two analysts of the congressional situation, the election of 1964 changed the political “environment sufficiently to move the two principal groups to positions of tolerance and flexibility on a legislative program which they both would have opposed under different conditions” (Eidenberg and Morey 1969, 86).

Broad interest-group support for ESEA did not, of course, mean that the principal groups merely capitulated to the desires of the executive. The Johnson administration had to design a program that offered enough enticements to each group to lure them into the coalition, while still keeping the reform-minded thrust that motivated the original proposal. For example, the “child benefit” concept allowed some funds to be used for the welfare of children in nonpublic schools, thereby gaining Catholic support, while still.denying any direct allocations tochurch-related institutions. This limitation,

in turn, kept the bill within limits acceptable to public school people and others concerned about separation of church and state. State departments of education were given special funding, thereby softening the blow that greater federal administrative controls meant for their prestige and autonomy. Yet, taken together, the largest and most important piece of federal education legislation ever passed owed more to presidential leadership and commitments, together with strong partisan legislative support, than to any organized interest-group activities.


As President Johnson’s political luster began to fade, and as educational funding failed to attain the lofty heights initially anticipated, interest groups became increasingly isolated, autonomous participants in the legislative process. Characteristically, whenever group influence increased, it became increasingly specialized and oriented toward maintenance of existing programming. ESEA, in fact, had hardly emerged from stages of infancy before a host of new interest groups assumed the traditional role of working to maintain the general thrust of the program while seeking to modify it slightly in ways responsive to their special concerns. This burgeoning cavalcade of Title I-related organizations included the National Advisory Council for the Education of Disadvantaged Children, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Legal Standards and Education Project of NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, and the National Association of Administrators of State and Federally-Assisted Education Programs (Kirst and Jung 1980).

The similarity of these organizations surrounding Title I to the old AVA has been little noticed. Like the “granddad” that preceded them, these groups have gained considerable influence in a narrowly defined policy area. Moreover, like AVA, they have sought to maintain the basic structure of the existing program, while offering suggested modifications that focus benefits even more clearly on their specific constituency. They deviate to some extent from AVA, however, in that they have influenced policy development more by their research and analysis than by any well-defined constituency they represented. For example, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a report in 1969 charging “flagrant violations of the law” (Murphy 1971, 43). The Office of Education responded by forming a task force to examine the issue, and it later made a substantial increase in its administrative staff charged with securing local compliance. Such activity was repeated with some frequency by comparable groups in subsequent years, as specific aspects of Title I, often very technical in nature, were carefully analyzed. The impact of these groups should not be overemphasized, however, for even these reformist organizations, to the extent they have pushed for change, have focused on relatively narrow spheres of program administration and implementation. Otherwise, they have steadfastly supported the program’s original conception, dependent on congressional receptivity to their arguments. In two other areas- education for the handicapped and bilingual education- interest-group influence has contributed to policy fragmentation. Interest groups seem to have contributed materially to the policy outcome in both areas. However, even in these instances of unquestioned group power, the political environment in which they operated also decisively affected their chances for success. In both cases legislative enactments were attributable primarily to an activist judiciary, which endorsed the educational rights that groups were demanding and created a legal mandate for political action.

Court influence was particularly evident in the case of handicapped children, as rulings handed down in 1972 on the basis of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments found exclusion of handicapped children from a public education to be discriminatory.2 The decisions served as forerunners to two major pieces of legislation, the Rehabilitation Services Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The latter bill, in fact, relied heavily on the court decisions for objectives and procedures in the law. The judicial decisions were themselves a product of group action, to be sure. The

Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) filed the suit that was to have such national repercussions. The groups that had the greatest influence, such as NARC and the Council for Exceptional Children, were hardly the traditional educational interests dominated by certified educators. Instead, the influential groups were suspicious of the public schools and sought to have written into the law numerous provisions such as due-process hearings for parents and requirements that children be educated in the “least restrictive environment” feasible.

Some of the provisions in the 1975 legislation, such as those pertaining to educational “mainstreaming,” have met with outright opposition from teacher and other professional education organizations. Thus, to the extent that group power was exercised, it was once again the power of a more specialized interest at work. The program that resulted contributed once again to increasing fragmentation of federal programming in education.

The judicial capacity to open new political opportunities for specialized interest groups was also demonstrated in the case of bilingual education. The 1974 Supreme Court decision (Lau v. Nichols) was not as far-reaching as were the decisions made in connection with the handicapped. In this case the Supreme Court rested its judgment on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 instead of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The accompanying federal policy change was not as massive either. The special education legislation that evolved from the court cases committed itself to an indefinite program of fiscal support. Although the ambitious funding targets have never been reached, funding did eventually increase to nearly $1 billion annually. By contrast, bilingual programs have never been authorized on anything more than a demonstration basis, and funding levels have never exceeded $200 million (see Table 1).

Support for bilingual education was once again carried forward by groups with a specialized interest in this particular program. The most fervent supporters were groups representing Spanish-speaking communities, byproducts of a rising political consciousness among Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and other nationality groups that had been awakened by the civil rights movement. Apart from staff members within the National Education Association’s

Washington office, the major groups supporting bilingual programming were seldom among the mainline educational interests. Instead, these groups, including the Puerto Rican Association for National Affairs, had a particular interest in the education of Spanish-speaking immigrants from various countries in Latin America . These groups have proven to be persistent advocates of one strand of federal education policy, working to maintain and expand the program. They have more influence than many educational groups, because they seem to speak for an identifiable ethnic minority that presumably evaluates political leaders on the basis of their responsiveness to ethnic concerns.

These innovations in special and bilingual education suggest greater interest-group activism during the past decade than in prior generations. Given the proliferation of federal programs and gradual expansion of funding for education, together with an explosion in the total number of active groups, this increased influence has been inevitable. Yet, the triumphs of groups representing the handicapped and language minorities remain in many ways anomalous. Their greatest successes were strongly predicated on judicial decisions, which afforded unusual opportunities for influencing anticipated legislative action. Unless comparable court decisions are made in other areas, one must guard against generalizing from their successes and considering their influence typical of groups interested in other federal categorical programs.

The 1970s featured substantial swings of support for educational programs by various branches of the federal government. After Johnson’s unflinching proschool stance, it was perhaps inevitable that his Republican successors would become more skeptical about the value of educational programs. Both during the Nixon and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Ford administrations, the executive branch opposed expansion of educational programs. At the same time Congress remained in Democratic hands, and the executive branch was only marginally able to influence the terms on which educational legislation was passed. As the policymaking process came to be divided between the two political parties, interest groups gained new capacities to shape programs. We have already seen how these partisan divisions, together with judicial activism, provided groups interested in the handicapped and in bilingualism with opportunities to influence federal policies of special concern to them. The more general interest groups attempted to take advantage of this division of power as well. They resisted impoundment of federal funds, overcame presidential vetoes, and in general demonstrated unprecedented levels of political confidence and sophistication. Nonetheless, much of this interest-group activity was devoted to the sheer maintenance of existing programs at roughly current levels of funding. Even when acting in an unusually unified manner, groups were playing their traditional role of holding the line, relying on congressional supporters to back them in their contests with what seemed to be a hostile executive.

Most of the educational interest groups responded only lukewarmly to the education revenue-sharing concept proposed by the Nixon administration. Some aspects of the proposal were enticing to the traditional interest groups, particularly the emphasis on reducing federal regulations, which would presumably afford local educators greater flexibility in the use of federal funds. But many educators were afraid that collapsing the categorical programs into one general block grant would reduce overall funding for education. In addition, religious groups such as the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches feared that the change would rekindle the debate over aid to parochial schools, a possibility they considered most undesirable. Civil rights organizations feared the proposed policy would culminate in an abandonment of federal enforcement of equal-access provisions of existing laws.

Interest groups elected once more to assume their historic role as sources of maintenance instead of agents of change, and generally joined forces in opposition. They “preferred to retain an acceptable status quo rather than raise the prospect of upsetting ‘the delicately balanced compromise’ and risking ‘a holy war”’ (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Forthcoming, 100). The most unifying theme for groups during this period was a common opposition to the threat of substantial reductions in education allocations. The administration’s 1969 proposal to cut education funding $450 million from the previous year alienated the entire education lobby in a single blow. Gary Orfield explained that “instead of exploiting the many potential divisions within the education groups and within Congress, the administration’s budget posture created an unprecedented sentiment for unity” (Orfield 1975, 137).

The president’s campaign pledge to “Bring Us Together” had unusual potency among education interest groups. They perceived their interests as acutely threatened by the proposed cuts and, to a somewhat lesser extent, by the revenue-sharing concept. More than seventy organizations, including those representing teachers, school boards, state school officials, parochial schools, civil rights, the handicapped, libraries, instructional material manufacturers, higher education, and non-education labor unions, joined forces within a coalition labeled the Emergency Committee for Full Funding of Education Programs (ECFFEP). These groups managed to set aside their many differences to fight the proposed cutbacks, and relied on swarms of volunteer constituents to carry their message to Congress and the news media.

The committee was most active during the summer and fall of 1969, when it succeeded in obtaining $1 billion more for education than the Nixon administration had proposed, a process that included the rare overturning of the venerable House Appropriations Committee on the House floor. The coalition, however, represented a short-term unification on a single issue and not a lasting coalescence of organizations.

The proliferation of fragmented interest groups continued largely unabated in subsequent years. The centerpiece of late 1970s achievement, the creation of the Department of Education, was consistent with this pattern. It was ratified amidst a fractious interest-group atmosphere. Divisiveness among the public education interest-group ranks reached an unprecedented peak during this period. The National Education Association and other broad-based groups joined with many advocates of specific categorical programs and some labor organizations to support the proposal for a Department of Education. However, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Catholic Education Association, and a variety of higher education, civil rights, and labor organizations worked against it. As a result, “months of heated lobbying on the measure split some longtime allies and united some traditional enemies” (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations 167). This internecine warfare was reflected in continuing debates over the direction of federal policy during the remainder of the Carter years, and it may have impeded any cohesive interest-group response to Reagan administration proposals to consolidate existing programs, substantially slash funding levels, and usher in an era of retreat in federal activity in education policy.


It may be somewhat premature to narrate the process of education policymaking of the Reagan administration and characterize the role that groups have played in this brief period. Nonetheless, the dramatic sequence of events in the first half of the administration tends to substantiate findings from prior periods that interest-group activity is largely shaped by the political conditions and opportunities with which it is presented. Groups haplessly watched many revered programs steamrolled into oblivion, with prospects of even more dire alterations entirely possible. Groups have attempted to plug a rapidly leaking dike, and in some cases have enjoyed marginal success. But they have clearly been relegated to the margins of the policymaking process, a position entirely familiar to them despite the pronounced nature of their recent subjugation. The most striking exceptions to our thesis of circumscribed group influence, groups active in special and bilingual education, once again demonstrated unusual potency during the first year of the Reagan cutbacks. The administration quickly withdrew a set of bilingual education regulations that had been promulgated by its predecessors and had been endorsed by many Hispanic groups, but it backed down from an initial plan to tuck bilingual programs into a block-grant program. Many pro-bilingual groups converged on

Washington , finding a responsive audience in Terrel Bell, the education secretary of an administration that had received a surprising 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1980. Bell proved sympathetic to concerns of the bilingual groups, and worked to salvage the categorical program, although at reduced levels of funding.

The special-education lobby demonstrated similar political effectiveness in cutting its potential losses in the first round of education program cutbacks. Numerous groups orchestrated an effective campaign before Congress, and they prevented special-education program and funding losses from being as severe as most categorical counterparts. “The most effective, visible groups with a serious impact in the Senate and in the House were the handicapped groups,” noted one lobbyist. “It’s hard for Senators and Congressmen to say no to people coming up to them in wheelchairs, especially when there are TV cameras and members of the press there” (Love 1981). The department advanced a far-reaching “deregulation” proposal that would erase many key features of prior legislation, but has backtracked substantially since mid-1982. In addition to bilingual and special-education programs, the vocational education program also avoided drastic changes, even though it, too, suffered severe funding cutbacks. The program weathered possible consolidation into a block grant, both because of the distinct nature of its activity and its longstanding popularity throughout the nation. Moreover, the American Vocational Association rallied its forces and worked vigorously to maintain the program. The association has long emphasized “preventing something from happening and maintaining the status quo,” according to one education group expert in

Washington , and this background was particularly helpful during 1981 and 1982 (Love 1981).

Despite these three cases of some group capacity to salvage endangered programs, the majority of categorical programs were exposed to a hostile political environment and underwent dramatic funding reductions. Twenty-nine programs disappeared entirely including NDEA and desegregation assistance. They were compressed into a block grant (Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981) that was modestly funded at its outset and scheduled for major reductions in following years (Table 1). ESEA Title I was substantially restructured as cumulative regulations and guidelines developed over the past fifteen years were largely obliterated. Groups supportive of these programs were essentially ignored, and no viable coalition formed to pursue common interests in opposing the administration proposals. Even the coalescing of interests that occurred in response to Nixon administration proposals was not repeated. There were, in fact, substantial setbacks even in exceptional cases in which group influence was evident. Groups slowed but did not stem the overall process of retrenchment in any program area. Special, bilingual, and vocational education all underwent significant funding cuts, and each was the subject of further proposed cuts in the 1982 budget. Moreover, these groups generally remained isolated in their categorical subdivisions, and did not join forces with other groups.

Having attained a relatively comfortable existence with prior administrators, many interest groups were simply unable to adjust to the dramatic change in political circumstances. Because they were primarily concerned with maintenance of existing programs in a relatively stable legislative system in which subcommittee chairs provided reliable aid, the arrival of the Reagan administration and the new Congress had the effect of a tidal wave. Small categorical programs were dumped altogether, while larger ones, with Title I perhaps the most obvious case in point, were drastically reduced in size and scope.

In the future, political parties are likely to continue to take differing positions, and public sentiment is likely to shift with changes in the economy, foreign competition, or intergroup relations. Because schools have (or at least are perceived to have) widespread societal impact, broad social forces often overwhelm the potpourri of miscellaneous interest groups devoted to the maintenance of existing educational arrangements. If these groups can only confidently protect their small domains in the calmer moments when the nation is attending to other problems, they cannot be expected to do better than engage in rearguard actions when schools are understood as institutions fundamentally important to the nation’s economic and political well-being. In short, educational interest groups would become powerful only if schools became insignificant. Many political and economic alternatives are conceivable in the future, as we shall see, but none seriously threaten the continued significance of public education, however uncertain the eventual federal role may be.


If the past is any guide to the future, interest groups are as likely to be influenced by policy as to shape it in the next decade. In general, educational innovations are the product of national crises, judicial decisions, presidential leadership, and partisan political commitments. While interest groups help sustain programs once enacted and may help shape the way in which legislation is formulated, the overall direction of educational policy is surprisingly divorced from the play of group politics. Any assessment of the

Table 2. Impact of Political and Economic Factors on Group Activities and Federal Educational Policy (enumerated in the order they are most likely to occur)

Conservative Republican Dominance

Liberal Democratic Dominance

Economic Growth

1. Moderate reduction in federal support; shift to block grants

4. Moderate to substantial increases in federal support; consideration of greater fiscal equity among school districts

Economic Stagnation or


3. Sharp reductions in federal support; shift to block grants

2. Slight increases in federal support: continued categorical Programming

future connections between groups and federal policy must, therefore, take into account other factors that are likely to structure that relationship. Although many factors could be important, the two most important developments likely to impinge on group activities and educational programs are overall economic trends and partisan political relationships. In general, one can expect higher levels of support for education if economic growth rates increase in the 1980s over what they were in the 1970s. If the economy continues to weaken and decline, then support for education can be expected to decline precipitously. Politically, the more power remains in the hands of the Republican party, the more the responsibility for educational finance will shift to state and local governments. Should the Democratic party capitalize on its new congressional strength, and win a presidential race in 1984, one can expect greater political support for a significant federal role in education. Four distinct possibilities exist, which are presented in the order we believe they are most likely to occur (see Table 2).

1. Resurgent Republican strength together with an improving economic situation. Although we are still little more than two years into the Reagan administration, the chances that Republicans will be able to more or less hold their political position during most of the 1980s must be rated as being better than a Democratic return to dominance. The president’s personal popularity remains high, the conservative mood so evident in 1980 has not necessarily been extinguished by the 1982 elections, and the economy may yet respond to administration policies. If the current administration engineers a prosperous economic climate, it must be anticipated that many of the proposed policies of the Reagan administration will be put into effect. Federal education expenditures will be concentrated into block grants, and overall levels of federal funding will continue to be gradually reduced. However, interest groups can be expected to retard the rate and extent of policy change. It is possible that various categorical programs will continue to be excepted from general grant provisions. Moreover, group pressures are likely to keep levels of funding higher than those presently recommended by the Reagan administration. Especially if economic prosperity eases the pressure on the national budget, the specialized interests, working with allies in Congress, are likely to offset somewhat the present administration’s commitment to a reduction in the federal role. This became increasingly apparent in the months prior to the 1982 election, as continuing resolutions maintained some semblance of funding stability for programs.

But even though interest groups will probably modify proposed cuts in educational expenditures, they are unlikely to form a broad coalition that can successfully maintain current levels of federal spending in the same way that they did in the early 1970s. With a shift of power decidedly in a conservative direction, interest groups will decide that overt confrontation makes little sense. Instead, each specialized interest is likely to concentrate on saving an aspect of the program in which it has the greatest stake. Over time, the number and types of groups involved in educational policy will change. As categoricals give way to block grants, the influence of the specialized interests will weaken, and the power and cohesion of the more broadly based groups will increase. Once a block-grant arrangement is well in place, this coalition will be in a strong position to dominate educational policy and fend off new efforts to create special programs. Gradually, they can be expected to increase the size of the block grant so that funding levels return to their current levels, though this is unlikely until the latter part of the 1980s.

2. Revival of Democratic fortunes coupled with a stagnant economy. If economic woes continue the trend toward Democratic political dominance, as suggested by the 1982 election, the outcomes for educational policy will be somewhat different. If interest rates remain high, the economy remains mired in recession, and unemployment continues to climb, then a further Democratic revival is likely. This alternative must be considered almost as probable as continued Republican strength in a favorable economy. The Democratic party did gain more congressional seats in the 1980 election than is customary for the nonpresidential party during the first term of a presidency. With a stronger Democratic majority in the House, and with some Republicans from swing districts less closely aligned to the administration, interest groups can be expected to build alliances that will maintain existing educational programming. One might even find a reemergence of the broad coalition that overcame a presidential veto in the early 1970s. Should this be followed by a Democratic victory in 1984, the federal role in education is likely to expand beyond current levels. However, the unhealthy state of the economy will preclude rapid expansion even under Democratic leadership, aside from programs directly tied to job training or high technology.

Under these circumstances the existing interest-group complex is likely to be largely sustained, and the various categorical programs presently in place modified only marginally. There may be some effort to simplify regulations, and some consolidation of programs, but federal policies will continue to emphasize special programs for disadvantaged groups rather than broad-scale aid for education. Some monies will be weaned away from defense accounts, but given the need for fiscal prudence, only marginal increments can be anticipated. Social Security will remain sacrosanct on Capitol Hill whereas education will remain vulnerable.

3. Continued Republican dominance but a declining economic situation. This outcome is much less likely than either of the first two, but it is possible that continued divisions within the Democratic party could prevent it from capitalizing on the opportunities a declining economic situation give the opposition party. Also, a foreign-policy crisis near election time could give an incumbent president the ability to defeat the opposition in spite of economic difficulties.

Under these circumstances the picture for a federal role in education would be gloomy indeed. Pressures to reduce expenditures so as to approach a balanced budget would be so overwhelming as to preclude maintenance of expenditure levels at anywhere near their present size-in either current or constant dollars. Massive cuts in educational expenditures would probably provoke strong interest-group resistance, but the groups would probably be unable to overcome the negative impact of both the economic and the political situation.

4. Revival of Democratic strength in an improving economic situation. This is the least likely trend in the 1980s. If the economy gains strength, the present administration’s policies will be regarded as successful. However, it is possible that enough interests will be antagonized by administration cuts in programs for minorities, the elderly, the medically needy, the schools, and those living in central cities that Democrats will be able to defeat the administration even in an improving economic situation. The 1982 election showed enduring Democratic capacity to forge such coalitions in electoral triumph. It is also possible that a disaster in foreign policy or the emergence of an especially attractive Democratic candidate for president could offset the advantages that naturally accrue to an incumbent president in prosperous times.

This pattern is unlikely, but it would be of great benefit to those wishing an increased federal role in education. Rising incomes could enable the federal government to increase support for education within the terms of a balanced budget. With Democrats in power, the allies of the proschool organizations and the specialized interests would push for higher levels of educational commitment. Existing interest groups in education would solidify their position, the Department of Education would emerge as an important part of the cabinet, and educational policy would come under increasingly centralized direction. Democrats of either traditional or Atari stripes could embrace education as a necessary stimulus to continued economic growth. There is even the possibility that the federal government would undertake fundamental changes in the structure of educational finance so that more or less equal resources would be distributed to all school districts.

When the four scenarios are considered together, it must be concluded that during the 1980s the future role in education will not be dramatically different from what it was in the late 1970s. One should not expect to find either a total elimination of federal aid or a major increase in expenditures. Most likely, allocations will decline in current dollars, and commitments in constant dollars will be even less. At the same time, it appears increasingly unlikely that the federal government will completely abandon a role in elementary and secondary education. Indeed, the threat posed by the political rhetoric of 1980 and 1981 may be permanently replaced with a return to business as usual. Projections into the future, of course, are seldom correct. In the late 1950s Munger and Fenno (1962) expected that a continued group stalemate would prevent significant federal aid to education in the near future. After the passage of ESEA in 1965, many expected federal aid to education to grow exponentially so that eventually as much as a third of all educational finance would come from the federal government. In the late 1970s, Turnbull, Smith, and Ginsberg (1979) suggested that categorical programs were so well entrenched that “killing a program is almost prohibitively difficult politically since every program has its staunch defenders” (23). In light of the initial popularity of the Reagan administration and its early political successes, it was tempting to predict that in the 1980s the federal role in education would be reduced to little more than a minimal role of research and data collection. According to incrementalist theory, changes occur only on the margins (Dahl and Lindblom 1980). What has been done in the past is likely to be similar to what happens in the future, except for some relatively modest adjustments. Such a prediction rests on the assumption that multiple influences shape federal policy: Changes in one factor, even if dramatic, are usually offset by countervailing changes in another factor. It further assumes that policy at any one point in time is the result of a political balance that approximates fairly well the preferences of the public at large. Any massive deviation from existing policy is likely to provoke strong response from some quarters.

Our analysis is, on the whole, quite consistent with incrementalist theory.

In our view, Republican efforts to cut educational expenditures are likely to continue to be offset by interest-group activity and Democratic efforts in the House of Representatives. Moreover, Republicans are likely to be most influential only if the economy revives, the very circumstances under which educational interests are most likely to persuade Congress that more monies for social purposes are affordable. If the balance of political power swings in the opposite direction, and Democrats build on their recent electoral success to regain the upper hand, one should not expect that rapid increases in educational funding will thereby occur. For such a Democratic gain is most likely to occur only if economic difficulties persist, a condition that will dampen enthusiasm for any policy innovation other than that targeted directly at macroeconomic deficiencies. Monetary policy, public works employment, and infrastructure repair will supersede compensatory education in all likelihood, as will protection of revered entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

But while we expect only marginal changes, we would be more confident of the prediction if the federal role in education had wider political acceptance. A review of the history of federal policy, and the group pressures affecting it, has only emphasized how partisan, how ideological, and how conflictual an arena this has been. The two major political parties debated over federal aid to education in the 1940s and 1950s; Democrats demanded a greatly expanded role, while Republicans said monies should at most be used only for construction purposes. In the 1960s the Democrats swept important legislation through Congress with only token Republican opposition, but these changes did not imply a partisan consensus, only the domination of one party over the other. When Republicans gained the presidency in 1980, they attempted to reduce federal regulations and cut overall expenditures; only a Democratic majority in Congress modified this program. Today, the administration remains convinced that educational policy is best determined at state and local levels, but waning support on the Hill trims its decentralizing ambitions.

When issues are understood in partisan, ideological terms, there is as much a chance for rapid, decisive change as for incremental movement. If either party should get a strong upper hand, it can move educational funding either upward or downward, in accord with party philosophy. Interest groups can retard or modify this process only if the balance of power between the two parties is fairly even. In the end, one cannot predict the future of the federal role in education without a capacity to predict the outcome of future elections. Such a soothsayer, were one to be found, would certainly be writing on a larger stage.


1 The term “interest groups” in this article refers exclusively to institutional groups and not generalized interests. If one speaks more generally of the effects of social interests on public policy, it becomes true virtually by definition that interests influence what governments do. Our point in this article is that the organized associations and lobby groups are not necessarily the major vehicles through which these more general social interests are most effectively expressed. Any reference to federal education policy refers exclusively to elementary and secondary education, not to higher education.


Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania , 342 F. Supp. 279, 295 (E. D. Pa. 1972); and Mills v. Board of Education, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D. C. 1972).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 3, 1983, p. 708-729
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 815, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:38:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Peterson
    University of Chicago
    PAUL E. PETERSON is chairman of the Committee on Public Policy Studies and professor of political science and education at the University of Chicago. He is the author of School Politics Chicago Style and City Limits(University of Chicago Press).
  • Barry Rabe
    University of Chicago
    BARRY G. RABE is a graduate student in the department of political science at the University of Chicago where he is completing a doctoral dissertation on the implementation of federal programs in health care and education.
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