NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Growth of Federal Involvement in Education

August 28, 2014

Federal intervention in elementary and secondary education has exploded over the last 50 years, according to a new report for the Mercatus Center by Courtney Collins, assistant professor of economics at Rhodes College.

The federal government had little involvement in elementary and secondary education in the United States until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Originally intended to provide federal funding to schools with high populations of students from low-income families, the ESEA has ballooned into a law more than 20 times its original size, writes Collins. Federal education funding for elementary and secondary education was $6.7 billion in 1964 (in 2013 dollars). By 1966, it was more than $14 billion. In 2010, it was $80 billion.

As new federal programs have been created over the last half-century, new federal requirements have been imposed on schools:

  • The ESEA was amended in 1966 with Title VI, which covered the education of handicapped children. It provided money to states that promised to create plans to expand programs for children with disabilities.
  • In 1968, the law was amended to include the Bilingual Education Act, which provided states with funds to create new programs to serve students who were not native English speakers.
  • In 1974, the ESEA was expanded to include grants for a number of additional programs, including new funds to teach the metric system in U.S. schools and categorical programs for gifted children, career education and the arts.
  • In 1978, these categorical programs multiplied, adding new projects related to youth employment, health education, women's educational equity and book distribution programs. The ESEA also established new offices, including the Office of Environmental Education and the National Council on Ethnic Heritage Studies.

The Department of Education also grew during this time, issuing new regulations from year to year. The total number of regulatory constraints (regulations issued by the Department of Education including the words "may not," "shall," or "required," and the like) in 1980 was 2,000. By 2010, it had reached 10,800. All of these requirements, writes Collins, represent the replacement of state and local control with federal educational mandates.

Significantly, American students' scores in math and reading from 1971 to 2012 have hardly changed. While 9- and 13-year-old students have performed slightly better during that time, 17-year-olds have performed worse in math and shown no change in reading.

Source: Courtney A. Collins, "Reading, Writing, and Regulations: A Survey of the Expanding Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education Policy," Mercatus Center, August 25, 2014.


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