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Lesson 7.2

The Federal Government:
Small money, big influence

What power does the Federal government actually have over schools?

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Federal funding contributes a relatively small portion of the funding for public education in California.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that the federal budget normally provides less than 10% of the funding for public schools. Most of the federal funds spent on public education today are formula-driven and almost automatic. At present, most big decisions about education policy are determined at the state or local level.

This was not always the case.

In the early 2000's, under the Bush and Obama administrations, federal law seemed to dominate school policies and decisions. Why? Because a portion of federal education funding was contingent — that is, it came with strings attached. The amount of contingent funds at stake in these federal policies was small, but it was enough to have a huge impact on education policies throughout the country.

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

The federal government has long played an equalizing role in public education, providing critical basic support for students in high-poverty communities. Federal funds support lunch and breakfast programs in schools, for example, and provide financial resources for schools in high-poverty areas. The federal department of education also plays an important role in enforcing civil rights. See organization chart.

The George W. Bush administration expanded the role of the federal government in public education by requiring or influencing changes in state and local policies. In particular, federal funds were directed toward measuring the effectiveness of schools, especially in service of minority students. Annual universal testing, a centerpiece of this strategy, won widespread bipartisan support. This was an important change, because it drew attention to achievement gaps and spurred districts to take action.

In the quest to improve education outcomes, an important role of the federal government has been to collect data about schools' results. For a time, another important role was to provide incentives for experimentation and evaluation.

What was "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 federal money to support schools that serve low-income children. (Of course, there's a lot more to it. Here's a good summary of all of the "titles" of ESEA.)

From 2002 to 2015, ESEA was re-branded as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with some important changes. NCLB was a muscular policy: it made federal funding contingent. In order to access certain federal funds previously provided to districts without conditions, states were required to do some specific things: adopt standards, administer standardized tests in English and Math based on the tests, and hold schools and districts accountable for the results. Schools that failed to reach improvement targets were identified, and could face consequences.

NCLB was passed into law with broad support and 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 impossible from the outset — 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. Legislators deferred the problem to their successors, assuming that subsequent 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 conditions, 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 targets established by NCLB. These targets were known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) .

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 to their AYP targets. The state of California was an exception — it did not apply for a statewide waiver, though a group of ten California districts applied independently. The group included Los Angeles Unified, the second largest district in the nation.

The "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA)

At the end of 2015, congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB. Passed with strong bipartisan support as a last act of the Obama administration, the measure took effect in 2017-18 under the oversight of Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education.

ESSA substantially reduced the federal role in education. 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 schools and what to do to help them. This 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 in ESSA. States must still:

  • Target support for low performing schools and disadvantaged children. (California does this with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the California Collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE), described further in Lesson 7.9.)
  • Administer assessments each year of students in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in math and English/language arts.
  • 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 summary documents and videos about it.

Other federal programs

The federal government supports many other programs that relate to education, including child nutrition and special education. During the pandemic, the federal government provided emergency funding to states and school districts to sustain public education. Perhaps because the funds involved unfamiliar conditions, a significant portion went unused.

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.

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

Updated August 2017
February 2018
January 2019
March 2019
May 2023


What portion of California’s K-12 education funding typically 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.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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