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October 01, 2002

The Enemy Is Us

by Alexander Whol and David Strom

There are few places in the political world where the issue of federalism has asserted itself as clearly as it has in the arena of education. National politicians who issue calls for greater federal involvement in education historically have received a slap on the wrist from opposing politicians who claim such action would violate the inherent local nature of education. Indeed, throughout our nation’s history, the U.S. education system has developed with an emphasis on local control—states, cities, and individual communities have been given the greatest amount of responsibility for the schooling of our children. Our fear of a national despot, which brought about our great experiment in democracy, also led to a policy of decentralized education.

But along with this affinity for local hegemony is the understanding that education is a national priority—a subject of national focus and significance, not to mention debate. From the very beginning, Thomas Jefferson, an vowed states’ rights advocate, recommended the use of federal funds for "the great purposes of public education . . ."; and both George Washington and Benjamin Rush, colleagues in the revolutionary leadership, advocated a national system of education.

While less than 10 percent of education funding comes from the federal government, we have nonetheless maintained a national commitment to, and involvement with, education policy. From the Land Grant Acts of the eighteenth century, which included pro-education policies for those settling western lands, to the Morrill Act of the nineteenth century, which provided federal assistance to agriculture colleges, to the G.I. Bill of the mid-twentiethth century, education has been a national (and federal) issue. In 1979, in part to recognize the important need for federal attention in this area, President Carter created a cabinet-level department solely devoted to education.

Today, however, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find a renewed emphasis on education that has been, perhaps not surprisingly, accompanied by an unprecedented and important expansion of our national government’s involvement in education policy. The expansion comes not only in terms of a record increase in the portion of the federal budget devoted to education but also, and more significantly, through increasingly prescriptive federal mandates that are designed to enhance a national system of education accountability even as it builds on the existing national-state partnership in this area.

What is especially unusual about the current development is that it has been spurred along not only by the actions of traditional Democratic advocates of a national education policy but also by Republicans, led by President George W. Bush. For the purposes of this article, the specific politics of this dynamic are not important. Suffice it to say that the signing into law in January 2002 of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (renamed the No Child Left Behind Act by President Bush), which includes the most significant of these new federal mandates, came about through a combination of leadership and political compromise among a Republican president, a leading liberal senator (Senator Edward Kennedy), and a number of other supporting policy makers and shapers.

At the heart of the legislative change is a focus on academic standards and accountability for these standards by states. This emphasis itself is not new. A review of the law as it was previously amended in 1994 by the Clinton administration reveals many similar requirements on states to put in place systems of challenging academic content and achievement standards. The difference, however, is in the ways in which the law mandates that these standards are assessed and enforced.

For instance, Title I of the law includes a federally mandated, state-imposed test in reading/language arts and mathematics to be given to every student every year from third through eighth grade. It asserts that every state must participate in the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) if it wants to continue to receive Title I funds. And it requires an annual assessment of all limited-English-proficient children in their English oral proficiency, and in the content areas in which other students are tested. These are all commendable responses to dealing with the challenges facing schools in communities across this country. But it is nonetheless unusual in that these are dictates from the national government. In fact, a similar effort made during the Clinton administration to introduce a voluntary national test was attacked as an attempt to "establish a national school board."

But the biggest new federal role comes in the sanctions that Title I schools are subject to for failing to meet state accountability requirements. Indeed, perhaps the most invasive aspect of this law (from a national perspective) is its focus on remedies and the federal government’s involvement in mandating them. Under earlier law (as noted, the 1994 ESEA reauthorization also included a focus on standards and accountability), the consequences were minimal, in part, because most states did not have accountability systems in place and the law did not require them to do so. Now those requirements have been toughened.

To begin with, each state must define its "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) for increasing student achievement and set specific targets for all students and for specific subgroups. While states were required to set AYP under the 1994 law, measuring how this progress is to be achieved is now specifically delineated in the federal law, with only limited opportunities for states to make changes and increase burdens on specific groups to show improvement. Likewise, corrective action must conform with the very prescriptive seven-year federal timetable that begins with the relatively mild mandating of an improvement plan and works its way up to transfer of staff, restructure of the school, and ultimately, converting the school to a charter or turning it over to a private corporation. (In the 1994 law, these were optional, not mandatory.)

The law also mandates that states and school districts issue annual report cards to the public that contain aggregate information on student achievement as well as comparisons with subgroups of students. And potentially more significant in terms of national control of curriculum is the interpretation of one of the core components of the statute, which requires that programs and services supported by federal funds rely on scientifically based research. Like much of the law, this requirement existed previously. And the use of a scientific basis for determining education policy is certainly a correct approach from a pedagogic perspective. However, the Bush administration’s reported interpretation indicates a potentially significant departure from the standard deferral to local determination of curriculum, particularly in the area of reading instruction. Not only would it interfere with the local autonomy traditionally exercised by school districts, but—also ironically—such a policy would put many lawmakers who previously were outspoken opponents of this kind of legislative effort on the opposite side of the issue.

Even beyond the letter of this newly expansive law is the potential regulatory burden the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) could impose on states and local school districts. Given the scope of federal power in this law, the DOE is likely to present a more aggressive and interventionist position when it comes to interpreting the law through the accompanying regulations it develops. This, in turn, will add an even greater national flavor to education policy, with increased federal legal requirements and more oversight.

Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times, or the playing out of a "Nixon goes to China" scenario, but it is nonetheless ironic that the party that once put the demolition of the DOE at the center of its political agenda now finds itself forced to defend increased mandates and federal involvement in the running of our nation’s schools. Or perhaps it is, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."


Alexander Wohl, a former U.S. Supreme Court Judicial Fellow, is director of public affairs for the American Federation of Teachers. He was previously director of communications for the U.S. Department of Education. David Strom is general counsel of the American Federation of Teachers.