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Editor’s Note
Introduction to the Publius Virtual Issue: Federalism and
Education Policy
Education policy, historically a state and local issue in the United States, has in
recent years exploded onto the national agenda and new federal policies have
created a more complicated and contentious kind of educational federalism. For
this ‘‘virtual issue’’ I have selected six articles from Publius that I feel best
illuminate how and why intergovernmental relations around education have
undergone such a remarkable transformation and examine how changes in
educational federalism are being felt on the ground. These articles are as follows:
McGuinn, Patrick. 2005. The national schoolmarm: No Child Left Behind and
the new educational federalism. Publius 35 (1): 41–68.
Wong, Kenneth and Gail Sunderman. 2007. Education accountability as a
presidential priority: No Child Left Behind and the Bush presidency. Publius
37 (3): 333–350.
Shelly, Bryan. 2008. Rebels and their causes: State resistance to No Child Left
Behind. Publius 38 (3): 444–468.
Manna, Paul and Laura L. Ryan. 2011. Competitive grants and educational
federalism: President Obama’s Race to the Top program in theory and practice.
Publius 41 (3): 522–546.
Vergari, Sandra. 2010. Safeguarding federalism in education policy in Canada
and the United States. Publius 40 (3): 534–557.
Lowry, Robert C. 2009. Reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act and
accountability for student learning: The dog that didn’t bark. Publius 39 (3):
Nowhere is the impact of federalism—the allocation of constitutional authority
across federal and state governments—on American governance more profound
than in education. Most other countries have governments that centrally establish
Publius:The Journal of Federalism, pp.1^5
ß The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of CSF Associates: Publius, Inc.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: [email protected]
Editor’s Note
and administer policy for schools, including the creation of a single national
curriculum, testing, and accountability system. In the United States, our multilevel
and fragmented education governance structure and strong tradition of local
control have made the creation of national policy in education much more
complicated, both politically and administratively. Yet persistent racial and
socioeconomic achievement gaps, global economic competition, and the weak
performance of U.S. students on international tests have amplified the call for some
common goals and yardsticks to measure our children’s academic performance, as
well as more ambitious efforts to turn around chronically underperforming schools.
Education in the United States has historically been characterized by deference
to localism and the federal government has no constitutional authority to dictate
education policy to the states. Beginning with the National Defense Education Act
of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965,
however, national policymakers have used the grant-in-aid system to pursue federal
goals in public education. In order to claim their share of a growing pot of
federal education money, states have had to agree to comply with a wide array of
federal policy mandates. These mandates initially focused on promoting racial
integration and targeting supplemental program funds to high poverty schools
rather than monitoring the academic performance of students and schools. The
article by Patrick McGuinn shows, however, that a new federal focus on
accountability for student achievement and school reform began to emerge in the
Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 and was given more teeth in the No
Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.
NCLB requires states to create academic standards, annually test children in
reading and math in grades three through eight (and once in high school) and hold
them accountable for the results. States must determine which students are
proficient, identify schools where an insufficient number of students are proficient,
ensure that specified measures are taken with regards to schools that fail to make
‘‘adequately yearly progress,’’ and set targets that ensure 100 percent of children are
proficient in reading and math by 2014. One of the most important mandates in
the law is that school report cards must disaggregate student test score data for
subgroups based on race or ethnicity, economically disadvantaged status, limited
proficiency in English, and classification as in need of special education. Crucially
and controversially, a school which does not meet the proficiency target for any one
of these groups is placed in ‘‘in need of improvement status’’ and states are required
to take an escalating series of steps to interventions (including the offering of
public school choice, tutoring, technical assistance, and restructuring) with schools
and districts that persistently fail to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets.
The selection by Kenneth Wong and Gail Sunderman demonstrates how the
scope, specificity, and ambition of the law’s mandates—as well as their vigorous
enforcement—signaled something akin to a revolution in federal education policy.
Editor’s Note
A variety of concerns have been raised about the design and implementation of
the test-based accountability system at the heart of NCLB and the ways in which it
has fallen short of its goals and produced unintended negative consequences in
American classrooms. As the article by Bryan Shelly demonstrates, states have
bristled at the coerciveness and prescriptiveness of the law’s mandates and have
struggled mightily to implement them on the ground. It is increasingly clear that
the federal government’s ambitious goals in education have not been matched by
sufficient attention to how teachers and administrators can realize these goals; there
has been a large disconnect between policy and practice. As a result, each year,
more and more schools have failed to meet their state proficiency targets thus
triggering escalating corrective actions. Critics of test-based accountability believe
that the tests in use are an invalid measure of student learning and that they have
pushed schools to teach to the test and narrow the curriculum. And there is
considerable evidence that states have used their broad discretion to set their own
standards, tests, and proficiency levels to game the system by lowering their
expectations for student achievement.
Sandra Vergari’s article provides an international context for understanding the
challenge of national school reform in federal countries with a comparative study of
education governance in the United States and Canada. She emphasizes how
federalism and the lack of national constitutional authority to directly impose
school reform on states/provinces has greatly complicated politics and policymaking in education in both countries as it has forced the federal governments to
pursue their goals for school reform indirectly through the grant-in-aid system and
subnational education agencies. The intergovernmental relationship in education in
the United States in the contemporary era is both cooperative and coercive, a
duality that makes it complex and contingent on broader political forces. The
relationship has a cooperative element because the U.S. Department of Education
(USED) must rely on state education agencies as a conduit for federal education
spending and as the implementer of federal policies on the ground in school
districts. It is also coercive, however, as federal spending and policies have
increasingly been used to push states to undertake changes which are politically
unpopular and which they would not have undertaken in the absence of federal
Democratic President Barack Obama—to the surprise of many—has largely
embraced the new federal focus on testing and accountability. While the
administration’s ESEA reauthorization proposal would scale back federal involvement in some places, overall its education policies have continued the centralizing
trend of the past two decades. As Paul Manna and Laura Ryan’s article
demonstrates, the Obama administration has used large competitive grant
programs, including the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) and $3.5 billion
School Improvement Grant (SIG) programs, to push states to embrace federal
Editor’s Note
reform priorities and approaches, and to adopt national standards and assessments.
USED’s creative—and controversial—use of ‘‘conditional’’ waivers that give states
flexibility from NCLB mandates in exchange for agreeing to implement particular
reforms, highlights how federal officials continue to search for leverage over state
education systems. The article by Robert Lowry notes that Congress has even
discussed extending the K-12 accountability paradigm to higher education; to date,
these efforts have been unsuccessful but they are likely to gain momentum in
coming years.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act represents a major shift in ESEA and an
ambitious and contested expansion of federal power over an educational system
that has long been based on the principle of local control. With its prescriptive
mandates and timetables and aggressive enforcement, NCLB represents nothing less
than a transformative shift in educational governance in United States. However,
the ultimate impact of the law on schools is contingent upon ongoing efforts to
restructure state and federal departments of education to expand their administrative capacity and reconfigure intergovernmental relationships to adapt to the
new demands placed upon them. The Bush and Obama administrations have
initiated an unprecedented effort to empower and reorient the U.S. Department of
Education to pressure states to embrace federal school assessment and accountability mandates. At the same time, however, growing liberal opposition to
‘‘market-based’’ school reforms and a conservative backlash against ‘‘big
government’’ threaten to undermine the bipartisan consensus that made an
expanded federal presence in education possible. The ultimate outcome of these
debates will have significant ramifications for the future of educational equity and
federalism in America.
Berkman, Michael, and Eric Plutzer. 2005. Ten thousand democracies: Politics and public
opinion in America’s school districts. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Cohen, David, and Susan Moffitt. 2009. The ordeal of equality: Did federal regulation fix the
schools? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
DeBray, Elizabeth. 2006. Politics, ideology, and education: Federal policy during the Clinton
and Bush administrations. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer, and Nathan Scovronick. 2003. The American dream and the public
schools. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kirst, Michael, and Frederick Wirt. 2009. The political dynamics of American education.
4th ed. Richmond, CA: McCutchan Publishing.
Manna, Paul. 2011. Collision course: Federal education policy meets state and local realities.
Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Editor’s Note
———. 2006. School’s in: Federalism and the national education agenda. Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press.
McDermott, Kathryn. 2011. High-Stakes reform: The politics of educational accountability.
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
McGuinn, Patrick. 2010. Creating cover and constructing capacity: Assessing the origins,
evolution, and impact of Race to the Top. AEI Working Paper, American Enterprise
Institute, Washington, DC.
———. 2006. No Child Left Behind and the transformation of federal education policy,
1965-2005. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Mitchell, Douglass, Robert Crowson, and Dorothy Shipps, eds. 2011. Shaping education
policy: Power and process. New York: Routledge Press.
Patrick McGuinn
Drew University
Patrick McGuinn is an associate professor of political science and education at
Drew University. His research and teaching focus on national politics and
institutions, education and social welfare policy, American political development,
federalism, and the policymaking process. Patrick previously held fellowships at the
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Taubman Center for Public Policy at
Brown University, and the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of
Virginia and was a visiting scholar in the Education and Politics program at
Teachers College, Columbia University. His first book, No Child Left Behind and the
Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Kansas, 2006), was honored
as an outstanding academic title by the American Library Association. After
graduating with his BA in government and history from Franklin and Marshall
College, Patrick taught high school social studies for three years before earning his
PhD in government and MEd in education policy from the University of Virginia.