Public education is a shared responsibility in American federalism. The system of educational governance facilitates a division of power and control among the three planes of government, namely, federal, state, and local. Although the federal government has expanded its involvement in educational policy since the 1960s, public education remains the primary responsibility of state and local government.
State control in education is established by its own constitutional framework. In general, states handle a wide range of key educational issues, including compulsory attendance, teacher certification, curriculum standards, the operation of districts, graduation requirements, unions’ right to collective bargaining, and school funding. With federal funds accounting for less than 10 percent of public school revenue in recent decades, the K–12 budget typically constitutes one-third of the total state and local governmental spending. Due to the property taxpayers’ movement and court decisions on funding disparity among districts, a growing number of states play a primary fiscal role.
Historically, the federal government has taken a permissive role in education that is consistent with the notion of federalism as a “layer cake.” Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution specifies the “enumerated powers” that Congress enjoys, and the Tenth Amendment granted state autonomy in virtually all domestic affairs, including education. The dual structure was further maintained by local customs, practice, and belief. Observing the state-local relations in the New England townships in the mid-nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America wrote, “Thus it is true that the tax is voted by the legislature, but it is the township that apportions and collects it; the existence of a school is imposed, but the township builds it, pays for it, and directs it.” The division of power within the federal system was so strong that it continued to preserve state control over its internal affairs, including the de jure segregation of schools in southern states, many decades following the Civil War.
Federal involvement in education sharply increased during the Great Society era of the 1960s and the 1970s. Several events converged to shift the federal role from permissiveness to engagement. During the immediate post–World War II period, Congress enacted the G.I. Bill to enable veterans to receive a college education of their choice. The Cold War competition saw the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958 shortly after the Soviet Union’s satellite, Sputnik, successfully orbited Earth. At the same time, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education and the congressional enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act sharpened federal attention to the needs of disadvantaged students. In 1965, Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Despite several revisions and extensions, Title I of the ESEA continues to allot federal funds to schools with a high concentration of low income students for supplemental instructional services. Over the years, federal educational programs have become an important component of the grant-in-aid system, providing supplemental services to economically disadvantaged children, racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, high school dropouts, and English language learners.
As Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, the federal government further expanded its activities to promote educational accountability for all children. The 2001 law required annual testing of students at the elementary grades in core subject areas, mandated the hiring of “highly qualified teachers,” and granted state and local agencies substantial authority in taking “corrective actions” to turn around failing schools. Further, the law provided school choice to parents to take their children out of failing schools. Equally prominent was the legislative intent in closing the achievement gaps among racial/ethnic subgroups as well as income subgroups. These federal directions yielded mixed results at the state and local level.
In late 2015, the U.S. Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA signals a return of state dominance in education policy. ESSA restricts federal prescriptions on intervening in low performing schools. The law no longer requires state adoption of common core standards in exchange for federal funds. Further, it specifies that the federal government cannot use fiscal and regulatory incentives to encourage certain accountability practices, such as test-based teacher evaluation system. Following the 2016 presidential election, the Donald Trump administration has used executive actions to further reduce federal regulations and has proposed substantial support for school choice programs. These latest presidential initiatives aim at disrupting the long-established federal role by rebalancing not only state-federal relations but also enhancing market-based competition as a key priority.
To be sure, public education is shaped by both market-like competition and direct strategies to build system-wide capacity. States have adopted a variety of market-like venues to provide schooling services. Charter schools represent the most extensive state effort to promote choice. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia operated a total of about 7,000 public charter schools that enrolled 3 million students in 2016-17. Although charter schools are labeled as public schools, their renewable contracts are held accountable for outcome-based performance and are governed by state regulations regarding safety, health, dismissal, and civil rights. In return, charter schools enjoy substantial autonomy in setting teachers’ salaries and work conditions. To facilitate customization, Charter schools are keen on using digital learning and blended instruction. School funding follows students to the charter schools, which are operated on a multiyear renewable contract. Further, all fifty states allow for home schooling and about 2 million school-age children are home schooled. In large urban districts, charter schools and contract-based service providers constitute the key components of the “portfolio management” approach.
Equally important are initiatives to build system-wide capacity. States have taken over low-performing districts and schools. State takeover legislation has also enabled the mayor to take over the local school system, such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. The effectiveness of mayoral takeover has been facilitated by mayoral commitment to outcome-based accountability, broad public concern over school quality, bipartisan support, and the weakened legitimacy of traditionally powerful unions. Governors and mayors are keen on supporting early childhood education to ensure school readiness for all.
Kenneth K. Wong
Last updated: January 2018