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Lesson 7.2

The Feds:
Power to Provoke Change in Education

What power does the Federal government actually have over schools?

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Federal funding for education is relatively small.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that the federal budget provides less than 10% of the funding for public schools. In the first decade of the 2000's, federal requirements often seemed to dominate local school policies and decisions, in part because some of the funding came with new strings attached.

The federal budget provides less than 10% of school funding.

The federal government has long supported the cost of school lunches for students in areas of high poverty. It also provides supporting funds for schools. Under the George W. Bush administration, the federal government expanded its role, becoming deeply involved in spurring efforts to improve the performance of students and schools.

Average state revenues per pupil from select federal sources, 1997-2013. Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data (CCD). From figure 2 (page 9) of Federal Policy Meets the "California Way", a paper by Jeffrey R. Henig and Melissa Arnold Lyon for the Getting Down to Facts II project. Note: Years indicate fall school year. Excludes New York because of substantial missing data.

In this quest to improve education outcomes, an important role of the federal government in education has been to collect data about schools’ achievements and shortcomings, shine light on them, and insist on change in places where the system appears to be functioning particularly poorly. Another important role has been to provide incentives for experimentation and evaluation.

Goodbye, "No Child Left Behind"

NCLB made Federal funding "contingent"

A little history helps clarify the changing federal role in education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was created as a cornerstone of President Lyndon Johnson’s "War on Poverty." Title 1 ("Improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged") is the most familiar program. The main function of ESEA was to provide extra support to schools that serve low-income children.

From 2002 to 2015, ESEA was amended and re-branded as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was a muscular policy; it made federal funding contingent. States had to adopt standards, administer standardized tests in English and Math, and hold schools and districts accountable for the results of those tests.

NCLB established a romantic 12-year goal: By 2013-14, all students would score at a proficient level on state tests. It never happened. The goal was frankly impossible (for example, to have all English learners score proficient in English is by definition not achievable) but to have aimed lower than proficiency for all would have been unseemly. It was widely expected that subsequent bipartisan legislation would amend away the unreasonable bits.

Though passed as a bipartisan measure, NCLB eventually lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans as more and more schools fell short of the goal.

States were eager for relief from the provisions of NCLB, but congress was unable to forge a compromise to replace it. The law technically expired in 2007, but without a replacement it remained strangely alive, sort of. Like a zombie.

Federal money with strings attached

States, like mules / are stubborn blokes / so changing schools / requires some pokes

In 2008, state and local revenue sources for public education plummeted in the Great Recession. To prevent school systems from collapse, Congress quickly passed an economic stimulus package that included about $100 billion in federal funds for education. Most of these funds were delivered to states without significant strings attached, but about $4 billion was set aside for "Race to the Top," a set of competitive grants that encouraged districts to adopt specific policies in four areas:

As state leaders considered the federal "carrot" offered by the Race to the Top, they also faced a "stick." Massive numbers of schools and districts were failing to increase student test scores fast enough to meet the optimistic Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) targets established by NCLB.

Under the leadership of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in 2012 the Department of Education began working with states to apply for waivers to the outdated law in exchange for assurances that they would adopt specific policy changes. Virtually all states eventually applied for and received waivers. (The state of California itself did not apply, though a group of ten California districts including Los Angeles, the second largest district in the nation, applied independently.)

Hello "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA)

At the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB. Passed with strong bipartisan support, the measure took effect in 2017-18.

ESSA moved the center of action for changes in the education system away from Washington. It requires that states identify their lowest-performing schools and take action to improve them. But it gives states lots of flexibility about how to identify those schools and what to do to help them. The reduction in the federal role in education was matched with reduced funding: between 2011 and 2016, federal sources dropped from a bit over 10% of funding for education to less than 6%.

Many fundamental ideas of NCLB remain. States must still:

  1. Target support for low performing schools and disadvantaged children. (California does this with the Local Control Funding Formula and the California Collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE), described further in Lesson 7.9.)
  2. Administer assessments each year of students in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in math and English/language arts.
  3. Improve the quality and effectiveness of teachers, principals, and other school leaders.

The ESSA law runs over 1,000 pages, enough reading to keep you up many nights. To save you some time, the Alliance for Educational Excellence has created a series of videos on key areas within the Every Student Succeeds Act as well as side-by-side chart comparing accountability provisions in NCLB, NCLB waivers, and ESSA. The California Department of Education also provides specific information about federal programs related to ESSA.

Other Federal Programs

The federal government continues to administer many other programs, including two huge ones that tend to get less attention; child nutrition and special education. These federal programs are not affected by California's Local Control Funding Formula.

A lot of information (okay, an overwhelming amount of information) about federal education programs and initiatives is available at the U.S. Department of Education website. The department itself says its mission is "to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."

The prior lesson explored the role of the state in education. This lesson explored the role of the federal government. The next lesson will be closer to home.

Updated August, 2017 and February, 2018
to reflect the continuing shift of power away from federal policy.
Updated Jan 2019 with graph of federal funding.
Updated March 2019.


What portion of California's K-12 education funding comes from the Federal budget?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 6:16 pm
The pandemic caused a major shift in federal funding for schools. The chart website from the California department of education sets out the massive relief that California received.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 6:16 pm
The pandemic caused a major shift in federal funding for schools. The chart website from the California department of education sets out the massive relief that California received.
user avatar
Jeff Camp December 22, 2020 at 2:10 pm
Federal support sustained schools in the pandemic. At the close of 2020, Congress approved $54 billion in last-minute funds for education, plus some additional support for devices and internet access for families that can't afford them. Good summary from
user avatar
Kari May 30, 2019 at 11:21 am
It is interesting that states have interpreted "Assessment" requirements as "Testing" requirements. From what I understand, the new California Science Assessments are more like true assessments, with in-class and project work considered as part of a portfolio.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 23, 2019 at 12:12 pm
California's state plan for ESSA can be found here:
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 10, 2017 at 11:25 am
In 2017 the US congress further softened Federal accountability measures requiring student success in academic tests. The action placed further emphasis on state-level accountability policies.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 3, 2016 at 11:24 am
Got time for a webinar video on ESSA?
Leading education experts share their views on the "Implications of Every Student Succeeds Act for California and equity ".
user avatar
Mary Perry March 30, 2015 at 10:11 am
The news from Washington D.C. indicates that Congress may finally be getting serious about the long overdue reauthorization of ESEA (aka No Child Left Behind). Or maybe they aren't. It's been an "on again, off again" story for several months.
The action is long overdue and the delay has been frustrating. But perhaps the years of procrastination will end up with a more thoughtful approach to accountability than what we now have. This brief by two of the nation's leading education policy thinkers, Paul Hill and Linda Darling-Hammond, provides some hope. It's here: These two are often on opposite sides of the political and philosophical divide regarding education, but they are apparently united in this advice to Congress.
©2003-2023 Jeff Camp
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