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Goals 2000: Framework for the New Educational Federalism

by Peter W. Cookson, Jr. - 1995

The passage of Goals 2000 represents a victory for advocates of a stronger federal role in improving schools. The article explores the principal elements of Goals 2000, the origins of the "new federalism," the education legislative record of the Clinton administration, and what further efforts are necessary to meet the needs of American students. (Source: ERIC)

The passage of GOALS 2000 represents an important victory for the “cosmopolitan centralists” of educational policy who advocate a stronger role for the federal government in improving schools. This article explores the principle elements of GOALS 2000: the origins of the “New Federalism”, the education legislative record of the Clinton administration, and a discussion of what further efforts should be made if the needs of American children are to be met.

On March 31, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the framework for his administration’s nationwide education reform, GOALS 2000: Educate America Act. His audience for the signing was the student body of the Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California, an award-winning school with a multiethnic student population. Signing the act on the elementary school’s outdoor basketball court, the president told the students, “You look like America will look in the 21st century, and we will have to win with you . . . today we can say America is serious about education.” The president went on to say that the act “sets world-class education standards for what every child at every American school should know in order to win when he or she becomes an adult.”1 The president observed, “This is a new and different approach for the national government.”2 He signed a huge replica of the bill with a large black marker and dozens of school children joined him in signing the bill. Unlike other legislation proposed by the Clinton administration, GOALS 2000 received strong bipartisan support; the Senate passed the act 63 to 22, and the House passed it 306 to 121. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, supported the passage of the act saying, “Now we have a system of anarchy and chaos. We need elements of continuity. This does not accomplish this immediately, but . . . it will bring us to a more systemic approach to education. What kids learn each year will build on the last like building blocks.”3


The signing of the GOALS 2000 Act was a critical turning point in the history of American education. For the first time, the federal government unabashedly laid claim to the management of a national effort of educational reform. The “cosmopolitan centralists” as described over a dozen years earlier by Kaestle and Smith had not only reached the apex of the educational policy pyramid, but successfully engineered a reform act that de facto established the federal government as the major player in educational reform.4 Despite the fact that constitutionally the federal government has no authority to regulate public education, the president and the Congress, through the Department of Education, established a set of educational objectives that, while officially voluntary, essentially mandates a comprehensive educational reform plan for the entire nation. The heart of GOALS 2000 are the eight goals themselves:

All children will arrive at school ready to learn.

The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.

Students will master challenging subject matter.

Teachers will have access to training programs to improve their skills.

U.S. students will be first in the world in math and science.

All adult Americans will be literate and able to compete in a global economy.

Every school will be free of drugs and violence.

Every school will strive to increase parental involvement and participation in their children’s education.5

The act provides $700 million in federal funds for 1995. For those states and school districts that voluntarily adopt standards to meet new federal guidelines for what students should be achieving at each grade level, the administration intends to ask for $1 billion in subsequent years. GOALS 2000 represents a political consensus that without world-class standards, American students will not be able to develop the skills necessary for successful participation in an increasingly competitive global economy. And without federal support and direction, the goals will not be achieved. This is the core belief of what I refer to as the new federalism and the goals might best be described as articles of educational faith. The power of this new federalism to shape the future of American education should not be underestimated and, because of this, there is a need to examine the assumptions of this movement and to ask critical questions concerning its probable impact on education. Some of these questions are whether the goals are attainable, whether the goals represent the most important educational objectives, and whether the implementation of the GOALS 2000 Act will lead to a homogenized and regulated curriculum.

The new federalism is a striking departure from traditional liberal reform strategies, which emphasize equality of in-puts and tinkering, as it were, with the existing system. It directly challenges the conservative reform paradigm in that, while it nods its head in the direction of volunteerism, the new federalism is not sympathetic to market solutions for educational problems. The conservative issues of choice and freedom are muted in the discussion of standards and accountability. Certainly, the radical critique of American public education is not even acknowledged, let alone addressed. Issues of class struggle have no place in the new federalism; the new reform paradigm is functional and administrative in its orientation. It rests on the belief that a comprehensive reform package, guided by an enlightened and powerful state, can create a system of public schools that will meet the national goals. Perhaps most importantly, the new federalism signals a reaffirmation of the belief that public institutions are viable mechanisms for addressing and correcting social problems that cannot be resolved through market mechanisms alone. In passing we might note for further reflection that the goals themselves represent the triumph of those who link education and economy together in a seamless ideological web that postulates a set of givens that have yet to be empirically proved. The new federalism implies a close coupling of education and economy, whereas most empirical literature suggests a loose coupling. But these are matters for further discussion.

In this article the historical origins of the new federalism are traced and there is a discussion of the educational reform legislation of the Clinton administration. Of particular interest are the details of the GOALS 2000 Act and its assumptions about the nature of American education and the condition of American children. The last part of the article critiques some of the educational and social assumptions of the new federalism. The fundamental argument is that while setting national standards is a positive step in creating a more academically demanding content-driven educational system, there is little likelihood that high standards will be achieved if issues of equity are ignored and if the real needs of American children are brushed under the policy carpet.


Because the U.S. Constitution is silent concerning the governance of education, the states have retained the legal responsibility for the education of the children within their political boundaries. Unlike most other countries, there is no ministry of education in the United States with control over national curriculum, no national system of assessment or national certification of teachers. Traditionally, local communities have exercised enormous control over neighborhood schools through taxation, school boards, and such parent organizations as the Parent-Teacher Association. The American system of education is wondrously chaotic in terms of governance and accountability.6

Since World War II, however, the local autonomy of American public schools has been challenged at a number of levels. Because improved education has been seen as critical to the country’s military strength and economic competitiveness, there have been pressures for centralization and for rationalization at the federal level. The federal government has also actively intervened in local educational practices on behalf of the nation’s disadvantaged students through court order and through such legislative acts as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This intervention has led to fears among those who believe strongly in local educational autonomy that the federal government is becoming an educational Big Brother that seeks to impose a system of standards and accountabilities that would rob families, local communities, and states of their educational rights. As we will see, there is convincing evidence that the federal government, through court decisions, legislative activities, and executive pronouncements and initiatives, is moving the locus of policymaking authority away from the local community. According to Kaestle and Smith:

In many respects the federal education ventures of the Cold War were a continuation of the dynamic in American educational history between cosmopolitan centralists and resistant localists. Postwar conditions—a shrinking world, and weighty national priorities involving education—have tipped the balance toward federal intervention. Such factors do not predetermine how much federal involvement will come, nor how fast, nor is the direction irreversible in the short run. Our conclusion, however, is that federal government involvement of the past twenty years is continuous with general trends in American history and is not likely to be substantially reversed in the long run, although many changes of themes and techniques are possible.7

The evidence to support Kaestle and Smith’s conclusion is abundant. As of 1950, for instance, the only federal aid to elementary and secondary education was for vocational education, school lunches, federal dependencies, and Native American children. The federal education aid package for that year was $164 million.8 Four years later, the Brown v. Board of Education decision marked the beginning of federal intervention in educational policymaking. The Brown decision not only struck down the segregationist policy of “separate but equal,” but implicitly called for the redesign of American education because the school system tends to reproduce social and racial inequalities that violate the principle of equal opportunity for all children. Since 1954, state and federal courts have been extremely active in deciding cases related to major educational issues. Most recently, the Supreme Court of the State of Kentucky mandated that the entire educational system be revamped. State and federal judicial activity has increased federal authority in educational matters, because the national government is responsible for ensuring the rights of all citizens, no matter what their state of residence.

The fear that the Soviet Union was technologically and educationally superior to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to federal support of science and math education and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led to the largest federal attempt to ensure equal opportunity for educationally disadvantaged children through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This federal intervention was followed by other legislative initiatives in the areas of education for handicapped children, bilingual education, and block grants to schools for educational innovation. This federal interest in educational reform stimulated the growth of a substantial education lobbying community. By 1976, over one hundred interest groups belonged to the Committee for Full Funding, a Washington, D.C.–based educational coalition.9

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Presidents Reagan and Bush attempted to create educational reform strategies that emphasized local initiative and control. In fact, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the presidency, he suggested that the Department of Education be abolished. As president, however, he used the department primarily as a “bully pulpit” for espousing his beliefs in school choice and local educational autonomy. His major policy initiatives included program terminations, abolishment of block grants, support for tuition tax credits and vouchers, support for self-help grants to replace several of the existing programs for financial aid to college students, a constitutional amendment to allow state-supported school prayer, and federal initiatives to turn back some education programs to the states. The Reagan administration was seemingly determined to reduce federal budget deficits, reduce federal influence in the classroom, and return to the traditional education values of “local control and self-reliance.”10 President Bush supported many of Reagan’s beliefs by calling for the virtual deregulation of the public school system. In some ways George Bush, who believed wholeheartedly in privatization, decentralization, and educational competitiveness, went further than Ronald Reagan in attempting to reorganize the public school system according to what he believed were sound market principles.

Congress did not respond positively to the Reagan and Bush educational philosophy. From 1982 through 1991, Congress approved a higher level of educational appropriations than requested by the administration. In 1983, for instance, the Reagan administration requested slightly under $10 billion, whereas more than $15 billion was appropriated. In 1988, the Reagan administration requested slightly more than $14 billion, but over $20 billion was appropriated.11 Some of the Reagan and Bush initiatives, however, were enacted. These included the Education Block Grants for Selected Elementary and Secondary Programs, the Drug Abuse Education Program, and a cost-reduction measure affecting financial aid programs for postsecondary students. Of the twenty-two major programs administered by the Department of Education during the 1980s, seventeen were in existence prior to the election of Ronald Reagan.12 It is striking how few major legislative initiatives were undertaken by the federal government from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. True to their political beliefs, Presidents Reagan and Bush did not attempt to influence educational policy through major legislation until President Bush introduced America 2000 in 1991.

This is not to say that Presidents Reagan and Bush were indifferent to educational issues. The 1980s was a time of what might be called the greatest education debate in American history. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.13 This document criticized American public schools for being mediocre, short-sighted, and mired in bureaucracy. The report called for a revamping of American education and touched off several waves of educational reform throughout the states.14 Both Presidents Reagan and Bush seized on the growing public and policy dissatisfaction with education and led a major assault on the American public school. Secretaries of education appointed by Reagan and Bush were relentless in their attacks. Finally, President Bush attempted to virtually deregulate and perhaps destroy public schools by introducing legislation that provided public funds for private schools. This initiative called for a new school choice program for middle- and low-income families through federal grants and local “GI Bills” for children. Federal scholarships of $1,000 would be available to meet educational expenses of public and private school, including students attending religious schools. In 1990 the president and the nation’s governors established six National Education Goals to be met by the year 2000 and set up a panel to assess progress toward meeting those goals. President Bush proposed America 2000 as a broad package of reform strategies to achieve those goals. The bill called for high-stakes performance assessment not only of students, but of schools, districts, and states.

Despite the political rhetoric and occasional posturing by major government figures in the last fifteen years, the actual federal commitment to educational improvement has remained rather modest when measured in terms of dollars. From 1965 to 1992 the estimated expenditures for all levels of education have grown from slightly over $40 billion ($219 billion in 1991 dollars) to roughly $400 billion. The federal share of these expenditures up to 1992 actually declined. In 1965 the federal government contributed 9.5 percent of the expenditures; in 1992 the federal government contributed 8.3 percent of the expenditures.15 In 1992 the federal government contributed $34 billion to all levels of education, whereas the states contributed $151 billion, local authorities contributed $112 billion, and others (including federally supported student tuition that goes to postsecondary institutions) $114 billion. As a percent of expenditures for elementary and secondary education, the federal share was 5.6 in 1992. Clearly, the states and local communities continue to be the major players in school finance and by extension may not be as receptive to federal mandates as is sometimes imagined by reformers inside the Washington Beltway. Another way of examining the issue of the federal government’s commitment to educational improvement is to examine the relationship between educational expenditures and other social welfare outlays. In 1965, 3.2 percent of federal social welfare expenditures were for education; in 1992, 3.4 percent of the money spent on social welfare by the federal government was allocated to education. In 1992 slightly less than 2 percent of the total federal budget was allocated for education.16

If one juxtaposes the rhetoric of educational improvement emanating from the federal government from 1965 to 1992 with the actual monies committed to improving education, there is little doubt that the triumph of the cosmopolitan centralists is due in large part to the increasing importance of symbolic politics in shaping public policy. Education is a secular religion of self-improvement, national identity, and economic competitiveness. As the economy has become increasingly dominated by huge firms and investment banks, and as the economic arena has expanded internationally, the federal government has captured the theology of educational improvement, if you will, from the states and local communities. And because the federal government has virtually continuous access to the media it is able to establish ideological dominance.

In short, we have seen that the federal commitment to educational reform has gone through at least four distinct periods. Prior to 1954, the federal government played a very minor role in educational policy formation. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, the federal government made considerable effort to address the needs of poor and handicapped students. During the 1980s, the general policy of the federal government was that educational reform was a state and local issue and that the federal government ought to stay out of the business of large-scale educational reform. Beginning in 1992, the federal government began to attack educational problems with new vigor and a vision of comprehensive reform.


One of President Bush’s last acts was to introduce to the one-hundred and second Congress a broad strategy of educational reform that included school choice, development of model schools, enhancement of workers’ skills, and the enlistment of communities in support of this education strategy. When Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1992, he brought to the educational reform movement a vision that was not dissimilar to President Bush’s, but a firmer belief in the power of government to mediate social problems. As a “New Democrat,” Clinton has a political philosophy that can best be described as a firm but cautious belief in the efficacy of public institutions. In essence, whereas Presidents Reagan and Bush saw public institutions, including public schools, as obstacles to social improvement, President Clinton hopes to establish partnerships between public institutions and private enterprise. Throughout his career as an educational reformer, Bill Clinton has been a strong advocate of standards and accountability. What separates his approach to educational improvement from the piecemeal approach favored by Presidents Reagan and Bush is his belief in “systemic” reform. The objective of systemic reform is to create coherent educational policy.17 Systemic reform includes the following three major elements:

Curriculum frameworks that establish what students should know and be able to do would provide direction and vision for significantly upgrading the quality of the content and instruction within all schools in the state.

Alignment of state educational policies would provide a coherent structure to support schools in designing effective strategies for teaching the content of the frameworks to all their students.

Through a restructured governance system, schools would have the resources, flexibility, and responsibility to design and implement effective strategies for preparing their students to learn the content of the curriculum frameworks to a high level of performance.18

According to O’Day and Smith:

When fully implemented this model of content-driven system reform would be a uniquely American adaptation of the educational policies and structures of many of the world’s highly developed nations. It would marry the vision and guidance provided by coherent, integrated, centralized educational policies common in many nations with the high degree of local responsibility and control demanded by U.S. tradition.19

Systemic reform gives the Clinton educational agenda an organizing principle that is unique in American educational history. Supporters of systemic reform like to describe it as “top-down support for bottom-up reform.” By creating a coherent plan for reform, the Clinton administration had been unusually successful in winning bipartisan support for its educational reform package. This support has resulted in the passage of several bills, including Direct Government Student Loans, National Service, the Safe Schools Act, the reauthorization of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1993, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1993, and the overall reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Compared with his predecessors, Bill Clinton has established a record of educational reform that is unmatched by any other president.

The key piece in the administration’s effort to reform education is the GOALS 2000: Educate America Act. This act provides the framework of reform that guides and shapes the educational ethos of the Clinton administration. It is composed of five titles. Title I codifies the original six National Educational Goals concerning school readiness, school completion, student academic achievement, leadership in math and science, adult literacy, and safe and drug free schools, and adds two new goals related to parental participation and professional development.

Title II establishes the National Education Goals Panel, which will build public support for the goals, report on the nation’s progress toward meeting the goals, and review the voluntary national content, student performance, voluntary learning standards, and criteria for certification of these standards. This title also creates the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) to examine and certify voluntary national and state content, student performance and learning standards, and assessment systems submitted by states on a voluntary basis. It also provides grants to support the development of voluntary model opportunity-to-learn standards as well as assessment systems aligned to state content standards.

Title III provides a state grant program to support, accelerate, and sustain state and local education improvement efforts, helping all students reach high academic standards. Funds will support state development of a comprehensive reform plan. The areas to be addressed include strategies for developing or adopting content standards, student performance standards, student assessments, and plans for teacher training. States will be encouraged to develop management and government strategies that promote accountability for results, flexibility, site-based management, and other principles of high performance management. States will be encouraged to develop strategies to involve parents and the community in helping all students meet state standards and promoting grass-roots, bottom-up involvement. Last, states will be encouraged to develop strategies for bringing education reform to scale and ensuring that all local education agencies and schools in the state are involved in developing and implementing needed improvements. Title III also provides funds to support the development of a technology plan.

Title IV establishes a new program to create parent information and resource centers, to help provide parents with the knowledge and skills needed to participate effectively in their child’s education. Title V creates the National Skills Standards Board to serve as a catalyst in stimulating the development and adoption of a voluntary national system of occupational skills standards and certification that will serve as a cornerstone of a national strategy to enhance work-force skills.

Clearly, the new federalism is a radical departure from previous federal policy. Rather than seeing the federal government as an educational safety net, the authors of GOALS 2000 see the federal government, despite the rhetoric of volunteerism, as crafting, shaping, and, to some degree, controlling education throughout the fifty states. There can be little doubt that the passage of GOALS 2000 represents a triumph for the cosmopolitan centralists. Those who believe in systemic reform have captured the policy high ground and aim to create a coherent educational reform agenda based on the National Education Goals. By combining politics, personality, publicity, and astute parliamentarianism, the educational reformers in the Clinton administration have altered the way in which schools will operate in the future and they have legislated a reform agenda with bipartisan support.

Of course, the successful implementation of GOALS 2000 is dependent on the states and their efforts to align their educational policies to the standards-driven policies of the federal government. Moreover, any large-scale reform effort that ignores the pronounced disparity between the financial resources of rich school districts and poor school districts can be only partially successful. The fundamental assumption that high standards create high performance is still an untested theory and one that educators might question.


Throughout the history of American education, its ethos has been partly defined by the inherent contradiction between the need to develop cooperative democratically minded citizens and the need to develop able economic competitors. The tension between citizenship and the demands of the economy on individuals has produced a state education system that fluctuates in a cyclical fashion between emphasizing equity and excellence. It is not by chance that in the 1980s the “crisis” in education was linked to the economic crisis created by increased competition from such countries as Japan. The historian Paul Kennedy points out that the shift from “materials-intensive” to “knowledge-intensive” types of manufacturing has seriously undercut the economic foundation on which the American dream historically has been built.20 Because of this shift, the rhetoric of educational reform has been imbued with a sense of urgency and an assumption that children should be prepared primarily as economic warriors in the making. Behind the stated educational goals are the unstated educational goals of work-place discipline, economic competitiveness, and social stability.

The very vocabulary of the new federalism bespeaks its assumptions: goals, standards, assessment, performance, criteria, and certification. The words nurturing, community, and equity seem to have been lost in the policymaker’s lexicon of key words. There are numerous ironies in the new federalism. For instance, a recent study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that 87 percent of the parents who were polled were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the quality of the education their children received in 1991.21 Public education has not failed as dramatically as its critics have claimed. Increased resources have meant smaller classes, a school characteristic that is positively related to student achievement in early elementary grades. Minority dropout rates have declined over the last twenty years, experiments in cooperative learning have proved to have a positive effect on student cognitive and affective development, and while there has been a decline in the overall SAT scores, more students than ever are taking these tests and minority students are scoring higher now than in the past.22

This is not to say that American education has been as successful as it should be. And no one questions the reality that public schools in the inner cities are a national scandal and an affront to a basic sense of decency. One wonders, however, whether simply legislating standards will lead to substantial improvement in these schools without an infusion of resources and the development of an educational ethos that stresses democratic values as well as national goals. The emphasis on standards and competition is striking, especially when compared with the rhetoric of capacity and caring that has surrounded the debate over health insurance. It is quite likely that the National Education Goals will not be achieved unless there is a dramatic change in American politics. Without additional support for children, new high standards may create more inequities and deeper social divisions than previously existed. Raising the bar of achievement without providing the academic athletes with the intellectual tools and social supports required for competing may unintentionally create more, not less, social misery.

At one level, the American public school system operates exactly as it is intended. Educational attainment is a reflection primarily of social-class position. The disparity between the rich and the poor in the United States will not be lessened by creating national content standards. In fact, the rhetoric of the new federalism has an austere quality that seems to imply that the major educational problem facing reformers is youthful sloth and lack of rigor. This seems to me to be a major misapprehension of the relationship between education, economy, and society. It is also a misapprehension about the real-life problems facing American families and young people.

Nancy Gibbs, in an article in Time magazine, observed the following:

Every eight seconds of a school day a child drops out. Every 26 seconds a child runs away from home. Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected. Every 67 seconds, a teenager has a baby. Every seven minutes, a child is arrested for a drug offense. Every 36 minutes, a child is killed or injured by a gun. Every day 135 thousand children bring their guns to school.23

One-fourth of all preschool children in the United States live in poverty. Each year roughly 350,000 children are born to mothers who are addicted to cocaine during pregnancy; 15 million children are being raised by single mothers whose incomes average a little over $11,000 a year; on any given night approximately 200,000 American children have no home; each year child protection agencies receive over 2 million reports of child abuse and neglect.24 The “savage inequalities” about which Jonathan Kozol writes are not likely to be alleviated by policies that emphasize standards over support.25

What is missing from the educational reform framework as outlined in GOALS 2000 is a sense that better schools must become interventions for creating a society in which 200,000 children every night are not left homeless. Standards do not in and of themselves create excellence. This is not to imply that the framers of the Clinton legislative agenda are disinterested in the welfare of children. It is to say that to some degree the competitive rhetoric of the 1980s and early 1990s has created a reform momentum that does not sufficiently address the catastrophic economic and social conditions in which a significant number of American children live. It is my hope that, having established the reform framework of GOALS 2000, the Clinton administration will now begin to seriously address the preconditions required if children are to benefit from a world-class education. The new federalism may prove to be a framework without furnishings if the needs of children are not also addressed.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 405-417
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:06:30 PM

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