Federal Role in Education
The US Department of Education (2006) explains that education is primarily the responsibility of the State and local communities. This responsibility covers a wide range of functions such as the establishment of schools and colleges, curriculum development and determination of enrollment and graduation requirements. The predominant role of the State and local communities over the Federal government in education is evidenced by the finance structure for education, where about 90% comes from State, local and private sources; while only 10% is contributed by the Federal government, including educational expenditures of other Federal agencies such as the Department of Health, the Human Services Head Start Program, and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch Program. Thus, the federal role in education is seen as a kind of “emergency response system, a means of filling gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise, (US Department of Education, 2006).
However, over the years, with the exclusion of finance structure in the educational system as a primary responsibility of the State and local communities, the federal role in education is currently shaping the future of the American educational system through the measures required by the No Child Left Behind Policy.
Federal Role in Education: A Historical Perspective
According to Burke (1990, p. 18), “Federal involvement in education in the nineteenth and twentieth century was rare and not of great import.” An early indication of the relative willingness of the federal government to take a more proactive role in public higher education became evident with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 which “dedicated proceeds from the sale of federal lands to the States to establish colleges of agriculture and engineering”, (Burke, 1990, p. 18). The Second Morrill Act of 1890 extended its coverage to include “black land-grant colleges and universities, and designated funding for instruction in the mechanic arts, agriculture, English, mathematics and the physical, natural and economic sciences, (Collier, 2002, p.1). Thus, federal support for state-run higher education in terms of land grants was provided for by the Morrill Acts.
The 1917 Smith – Hughes Act served as a pivotal point of federal policy-making in education.
In addition, the Act specified three types of schools eligible for federal funds: all-day trade schools, continuation schools for young workers, and vocational evening schools. The Act also established a Federal Board of Vocational Education to administer the allocation of funds–granted on a matching basis–to the states. (Kantor, 1982, p. 35)
The Smith-Hughes Act provided federal funds for vocational education of less than-college grade, such as “trade and industrial subjects, home economics, and agriculture for students over fourteen enrolled in public schools”, (Kantor, 1982, p. 35).
The Smith-Hughes precedent, which made the availability of federal funds contingent on their being targeted for limited purposes and for specific children, enabled the federal government to exercise some influence on overall educational policy, without the necessity of attempting to secure fundamental changes in law and custom. But a price was paid: From this point on, federal educational policy was perceived as supplemental, categorical, child specific, and most important, non authoritative. (Burke, 1990, p. 20)
Additionally, the George Barden Act of 1946 supplemented the Smith-Hughes Act by way of developing more flexible types of vocational courses.
Part-time trade and industrial classes may now be operated for less than 144 hours per year, and employment courses organized for persons over eighteen years of age, who have left full-time school, may be operated for less than 9 months per year and less “than 30 hours per week and without the requirement that a minimum of 50% of the time must be given to shop work on a useful or productive basis.” (Wunderlin, Settje, & Bowden, 2003, p. 297)
Thus, this law further strengthens federal-state cooperation in terms of vocational education.
Federal role in education made a substantial expansion during and after World War II. This milestone was instigated by three laws, namely: the Lanham Act of 1941, the Impact Aid Laws of 1950 and the GI Bill of 1944.
The Lanham Act of 1940 authorized federal expenditures for operation and maintenance of hospitals, schools, and child-care centers built to meet the needs of workers in defense facilities.” (Steiner & Milius, 1976, p. 16)
According to Milius and Steiner (1976, p. 16), it often regarded as a model for federal child care support by providing federal aid to the states for preschool and afterschool care of children during World War II. The Impact Aid Laws of 1950 provided Federal Aid to those school districts where free education is given to children whose parents live and work on Federal property. The GI Bill of 1944 provided education funds for persons returning from the military service.
The first comprehensive Federal legislation in education was embodied in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which was enacted into law as a response to technological threats posed by the SPUTNIK space program of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic.
The act forged a partnership between the government and higher education inducing colleges and universities to develop high-quality graduate programs in science, math, foreign languages, and area studies. Federal support (in constant dollars) for international studies reached a high point in the late 1960s, when funding of the NDEA was at its apex. From there, international education went into two decades of decline, with neither Congress nor the presidency giving the field high priority. (Vestal, 1994, p. 5)
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal role in education becomes one that is centered on equal access and equality missions. Laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, were enacted to advance civil rights and prohibit discrimination based on sex, race and disability. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “bans discrimination ‘based on the ground of race, color, or national origin’ in ‘any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (Mcdonald & Powell, 1993, p. 109). Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids discrimination on the basis of sex:
Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, discrimination against individuals with handicaps is prohibited by any agency receiving federal financial assistance which obviously includes public schools (Council for Administrators of Special Education, 1992). Thus schools are required to make necessary accommodations for any pupils meeting 504 criteria, (Forness, 1997, p. 55)
Federal role in education was further enhanced by providing financial aid for both elementary and secondary schools thru the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965.
In addition to providing funds for programs to improve the educational opportunities of disadvantaged children (Title I), the legislation also provided aid for (a) school library resources, textbooks, and other instructional materials; (b) supplementary education centers and services; (c) education research and training; and (d) state departments of education. Overall, ESEA provided struggling school systems with extra funds to meet the educational needs of economically disadvantaged students. (Mitchell, 2000, p. 19)
In the 1980s, the Department of Education became established as a Cabinet level agency. Thus, federal role in education became a lot more comprehensive in coverage than ever before.
Federal in Education Today
Through the passage of the No Child Left Behind Policy (NCLB), there is a complete reshaping of federal involvement in education. This educational system becomes one that is “federalized”. According to Bloomfield and Cooper (2003, p. 7), the new role of the federal government in education can be seen from important perspectives such as:
The federalization of education under the law; 2. The standardization of curriculum, assessment and accountability; 3. The systemization of education from relative local autonomy to an increasingly state-based, federally supported arrangement that oversees school account, ability; 4. Increased privatization of curriculum and assessment, along with more educational choices for parents (Bloomfield & Cooper, 2003)
Over the years, the Federal role in education has changed from one which is relatively less comprehensiveness such as fund allocation, to one that ultimately shapes the future of the American educational system, attaining more functions and therefore, greater responsibility.
In his letter to education officials, Education Secretary Rod Paige offers his rationale for the federal role in education as evidenced by the strong measures required by the No Child Left Behind Policy:
“As a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, I understand the promise and the peril of improving schools…. The good news is that we know what works: scientifically proven methods, aligned standards, assessments and instruction, school and district leadership focused on student learning, accountability for results, and highly qualified teachers will improve achievement and bring success.” (Bloomfield & Cooper, 2003)
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