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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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Updated April 26, 2017

Fed funding for education is small

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 strings attached. People are sometimes surprised to learn that the federal government only provides about 10% of school funding. Those federal dollars seemed to be just enough, along with the power of federal laws in some cases, to get most states and public school districts to follow along in some important ways.

The federal government provides about 10% of school funding.

During this period, the federal government became deeply involved in the quest to improve the performance of students and schools. As described in Lesson 1.5, organizations mirror human nature in their tendency to believe the best of themselves. Self-ratings are almost always higher than external ratings; Americans know that students in large numbers are not getting the education they need, but believe their own kids will graduate from college.

An important role of the federal government in education over the past few decades has been to collect data about schools’ achievements and shortcomings, and shine light on them. Another important role has been to provide incentives for experimentation that is then evaluated.

Goodbye, "No Child Left Behind"

NCLB made Federal funding "contingent"

A central pillar of the federal government’s education policy from 2002 to 2015 was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Officially, NCLB reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first 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, and then NCLB, was to provide extra support to schools that serve low-income children. The difference was that NCLB made the funding contingent on states adopting content standards, administering standardized tests in English and Math, and holding 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. This goal was frankly impossible (for example, to have all English learners score proficient in English is by definition not achievable) but was deemed politically necessary. To have aimed lower than proficiency for all would have been unseemly. 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. While NCLB technically expired in 2007, states were invited to apply for waivers in exchange for specific assurances. Virtually all states eventually applied for and received waivers. The state of California itself did not apply, but a group of ten California districts including Los Angeles, the second largest district in the nation, applied independently. After years of bickering over how to extend (read "fix") NCLB, in 2015 a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was finally adopted. (See below.)

Federal money with strings attached

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

In the massive downturn of the Great Recession at the end of the Bush administration, state and local revenue sources for public education plummeted. As part of the economic stimulus package, states received about $100 billion in federal funds to sustain schools from collapse. Most of these federal funds were delivered without strings attached, but some came with conditions.

For example, some of the funds required states to adopt educational standards, which led to unexpectedly rapid adoption of the Common Core standards. The requirements also spurred development of teacher evaluation systems. The stimulus package also included $4 billion in competitive grants collectively known as Race To The Top. These grants encouraged districts to adopt and specific policies in four areas:

Hello "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA)

At the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB. It shifted Federal education policy closer to California’s model of more local control and flexibility. 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.

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.)
  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.

Other Federal Programs

The federal government continues to administer many other programs, including two huge ones that 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 April 26, 2017
to reflect the shift of power away from federal policy.


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
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.
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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