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Handbook of Education Politics and Policy
Bruce S. Cooper, James G. Cibulka, Lance D. Fusarelli
Federal Education Policy from Reagan to Obama
Lance D. Fusarelli, Bonnie C. Fusarelli
Published online on: 13 Nov 2014
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A revolution is taking place. It’s not easy to see, and those experiencing it have yet to fathom
its full depth and impact. That revolution is the reshaping of power and authority relationships
at all levels of the educational governance and policy system. (Conley, 2003, p. 1)
The revolution Conley described in 2003 has been an incremental but steady one.
Changes in governance and policy over the past decade when examined individually are
relatively small in scope. However, when taken as a whole, the full impact of education
policy changes since 1980 has created a new order and era in American education.
Education policy setting in the United States is no longer the sole purview of some
14,000 elected local school boards. Regional and local differences are quickly being subsumed
by national interests in such matters as equality of opportunity and educational
excellence (Fowler, 2012). At the local, state, and national levels, a government’s policies
are only as effective as their design and implementation permit, and even effective implementation
is heavily infl uenced by the character of the relationship that exists between
branches and levels of government. Thus, over the past decade the tension between competing
values and debates about how best to structure the governance of education have
gained increasing prominence in politics at the national level. Debates about the proper
governance of public education often seem to revolve around the tension between the
competing values of democracy and effi ciency or more precisely between centralized or
decentralized approaches (Boyd & Johnson, 2003). Education reformers have discovered
over the past 30 years that, unfortunately, by themselves neither centralized nor decentralized
approaches to government can guarantee either democracy or effi ciency in the
Education reform initiatives are often reactions to external shocks to the system. Consequently,
the history of the educational system and its reforms run parallel to major
events in U.S. history. This chapter examines this history and the federalization of education
policy from the Reagan administration through the Obama administration. We
begin with a review of landmark events and argue that the rather loosely coupled, fragmented
educational system in the United States has become in the past three decades
FEDERAL EDUCATION POLICY FROM REAGAN TO OBAMA
Convergence, Divergence, and “Control”
Lance D. Fusarelli and Bonnie C. Fusarelli
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more tightly coupled, as a succession of “education presidents” has sought to put their
stamp on the educational system. Hess and McGuinn (2002) calculated that between
1960 (Kennedy) and 1976 (Carter), education was in the bottom third (usually last)
of public concerns; from 1980 (Reagan) through 2000 (Bush), education ranked in the
middle to upper third and ranked fi rst of 11 issues important to voters in 2000. In accordance
with this increased prominence, initiatives undertaken by these presidents have
signifi cantly affected education in state and local school districts throughout the country
(Conley, 2003; DeBray, 2006; McGuinn, 2006).
THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION
The early years of the Reagan administration ushered in powerful social and cultural forces
that produced a wave of conservative reforms, which, at least in education, have been enduring
and pervasive. Reagan’s election reflected frustration with recession, stagflation, and
limited economic growth. Evidence of our lack of international economic competitiveness
was found in multiple international comparisons of student performance, such as TIMMS
and now PISA, in which U.S. students generally fare poorly compared to those in other
developed (and several underdeveloped) countries. Concerned by this lack of economic
competitiveness, big business became a major player in pushing for system-wide, schoolbased
accountability by linking reform to international economic competition (Jackson &
Cibulka, 1992). Conley observes that the impact of such assessments is substantial. With
intensive media coverage, “the audience for these reports has shifted from statisticians and
academics to policy makers and the general public” (2003, p. 2).
Around this same time (early 1980s), educational researchers Elmore and McLaughlin
(1981) found that it was “diffi cult if not impossible for state or federal government
programs to garner the interest, effort, and commitment of local educators to the higher
level government’s objectives” (as cited in Odden, 1991, p. 2). Research on local education
change processes also concluded that it was diffi cult to get new programs that were
created outside the local system implemented (Sarason, 1982) unless there was a mutual
adaptation process in which local educators could adapt, change, and mold the program
to meet their unique needs and circumstances (McLaughlin, 1976). In sum, the educational
research of the era concluded that local response was inherently at odds with state
(or federal) program initiatives (Odden, 1991, p. 2).
Indeed Boyd (1987) argued that the top-down nature of state and federal education
reforms rendered them unlikely to accomplish their goals of improving local education
practice and that without the input of local educators, these movements were doomed to
fail. Critics also voiced concern that the progress made since the 1960s on equity might
be lost in the hard drive toward educational excellence. They argued that external efforts
to improve local education systems simply would not work.
However, other indicators provided some hope that external efforts might not be
dashed by resistance among street-level implementers (Odden, 1991). Research on the
mutual adaptation process indicated that programs ultimately are implemented but not
always as intended. By the late 1980s, consensus was building among researchers that
state and federal initiatives do affect local practice. As Odden puts it, “the system is a bit
more tightly coupled than previously thought” (1991, p. 4).
President Reagan was able to capitalize on these trends to sell the idea that states
should solve their educational problem themselves. Reagan and Secretary of Education
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William J. Bennett used their offi ces as bully pulpits from which to sermonize about
what needed to be done to improve America’s schools (Boyd, 1988). By powerful use of
rhetoric and symbols, the Reagan administration was able to reshape the semantics and
agenda of American education policy (Clark, & Astuto, 1986; Jung & Kirst, 1986).
Clark and Astuto assert that the Reagan administration brought about “signifi cant
and enduring changes in federal educational policy” (1986, p. 4). The push for greater
accountability and school choice in the Reagan administration established the antecedents
for later initiatives by President G. W. Bush, including passage of No Child Left
Behind (NCLB) in 2002. Many of the reform proposals centered around the values of
excellence and choice, and emphasized higher standards, competition, merit pay, and
Refl ecting the concerns of policy makers, multiple blue ribbon commissions were
created and reports generated during this period, the most infl uential of which was A
Nation at Risk from the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). With
its militaristic rhetoric and political symbolism, “ A Nation at Risk was galvanizing as
political manifesto” and helped spur momentum for educational reform (Mazzoni, 1995,
p. 54). The report included provocative language in the opening pages: “The educational
foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that
threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and again later in the document, “If
an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational
performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
This report and others like it, coupled with the “Toyota Problem” of declining U.S.
international economic competitiveness, fueled widespread public concern about the
condition of education in the United States and gave President Reagan a policy window
(Kingdon, 2010) through which to initiate educational reform. Federal involvement in
education was no longer framed as an emergency measure (e.g., address the crisis and
get out); rather it shifted and was reframed as a necessary continuing federal function to
preserve the common welfare.
A Nation at Risk clarifi ed the connection between improving schooling and improving
the economy, and for the fi rst time schooling became a “hot and profi table political
issue, one linked to the creation of jobs” (Boyd, 1988, p. 302). This marked a watershed
moment in which the quality of education became “a major political issue in state and
national elections” (Schoen & Fusarelli, 2008, p. 189). Mazzoni noted that, “The invocation
of crisis, a repeated theme in commission reports and pulpit pronouncements,
infused urgency into the cause . . . these pressures create[d] political incentives for state
offi cials to risk the hazards of policy leadership” and undertake educational reform
Importantly, the changes in approach to government that were ushered in with Reagan’s
election went beyond simply a knee-jerk response to immediate crises (real or
politically contrived). Much of the underlying confl ict was centered on differing defi nitions
of community and differing visions for America’s future (one that embraced one
national community and the other that saw America as a collection of multiple interdependent
Over the previous century, the Democratic Party and its progressive and collectivist
impulses that stretched from the New Deal to the Great Society had sought to push
Americans out of their local, group, and ethnic loyalties to a greater American citizenship
(Wills, 1985). However, as Schambra explains, faith in a national community had
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withered because the federal government “while advertising itself as an engine of unity,
became a divisive force, a hammer pounding local communities . . . against the traditional
prerogatives of locality and neighborhood to defi ne and preserve their own way
of life. . . . Local communities were told their children could no longer pray in school
and often must be bused away from neighborhood schools” (Schambra, as cited in Wills,
1985, p. 80).
Reagan, on the other hand, embraced the “small republic renaissance.” He called for
“an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale . . . the scale of the local fraternal
lodge, the church organization, the block club, the farm bureau” (Schambra, as cited
in Wills, 1985, p. 80). Reagan did not see community as the Democrats did as a single
national community. Reagan perceived community as a community of communities,
tying his vision to an older Jeffersonian idea (Wills, 1985), and his approach to education
policy refl ects those beliefs. In many respects, his successor, George H. W. Bush, with his
“thousand points of light” social policy, shared Reagan’s ideal of community, while differing
somewhat in the need to create an interconnected web of organizations bringing
those points together.
The irony of the Reagan administration’s education policy is that his rhetoric of
decentralization and devolution (he repeatedly threatened to abolish the newly created
U.S. Department of Education as a cabinet-level agency) did not match his actions as
president (funding for the USDOE increased signifi cantly during his administration).
The blue ribbon panels and committees he created, with its corresponding obsession
with international comparisons and competitiveness (what Spring  refers to as the
human capital paradigm), set in motion forces that later manifest themselves in efforts
to federalize education. In education, Reagan talked locally but acted nationally, even
globally. This theme continues and gradually expands under his successor, George H. W.
THE GEORGE H. W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION
Convening an education summit in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989, President George
H. W. Bush worked collaboratively with the nation’s governors to establish broad performance
goals for education, including voluntary national standards that were opposed
by members of his own party (Rudalevige, 2003). To strengthen these ties, he appointed
former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander as secretary of education and Colorado
Governor Ray Romer as chair of the National Education Goals Panel. Bush’s education
plan, America 2000, called for the creation of voluntary national standards and testing of
students in five core areas—English, math, science, history, and geography—with testing
to be administered in grades four, eight, and 12; school and district report cards, as well
as school vouchers, were included in the plan (NYSED Archives). Republican disagreement
with such standards ultimately led to the demise of Bush’s America 2000 education
plan; after passing both houses of Congress (albeit with tepid support), “the conference
bill for America 2000 died in the Senate because of a filibuster by conservative Republicans
opposed to any significant expansion of the federal role in education” (McDonnell,
2005, p. 28).
Hess and McGuinn point out that, “Although Bush did not call for any substantive
increase in federal involvement in education, his efforts marked a signifi cant break with
Republican tradition and were attacked by congressional Republicans for threatening to
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nationalize education” (2002, p. 84). Conley asserts that this collaboration was signifi –
cant because governors “are notoriously suspicious of federal intervention into state policy
arenas” (2003, p. 24). In his view, “the act of creating [education] goals at a national
level opened the door to a much more activist federal role in education policy,” which has
been expanded in succeeding administrations (p. 24). Hess and McGuinn point out that
Bush’s endorsement of national standards “represented the fi rst step on a slippery slope
toward nationalizing curricula and schooling” (2002, p. 86). It also “moved the federal
agenda progressively closer to the mainstream instructional program within schools”
(McDonnell, 2005, p. 28).
Although some political scientists and education policy scholars assert that President
Bush’s push for voluntary national standards was tepid and incremental, the forces President
Bush set in motion—a type of accelerated wave, if you will—paved the way for the
far more dramatic federalization of education that was to come under the leadership of
Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Bringing the nation’s governors
together, many of whom were expressly interested in engaging in systemic educational
reform, refl ects an oft-overlooked success of the George H. W. Bush administration in
education reform. Bush recognized the political realities of the period, recognized that
national standards were coming and were in the nation’s competitive best interest, and
believed that the power of governors could be harnessed to promulgate those standards
and reforms. It is no accident, Conley points out, that one of the leading governors who
attended the summit and who was pushing education standards was Bill Clinton.
THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION
Contrary to expectations, Bill Clinton’s election did not produce a dramatic liberal shift
in educational policy to the left, away from the conservative movement of the Reagan
administration (Fowler, 1995). Much like his Republican predecessor, Clinton’s presidency
embraced the values of efficiency, excellence, and choice in education, while asserting
that national standards, testing, and choice could serve as vehicles to promote those
values in public schools. President Clinton’s Goals 2000 education program was remarkably
similar to that of his predecessor, George H. W. Bush; even the titles—America
2000/Goals 2000—were similar (Scribner, Reyes, & Fusarelli, 1995). Finn and Hess noted
that “few outside the Beltway could spot major differences” in the two plans (2004, p. 37).
The legislation pushed states to enact higher standards and encouraged them to create
testing regimes to meet those standards. President Clinton also led efforts to invest in
pre-K education initiatives, creating early Head Start for children ages zero to three and
increasing significantly funding for Head Start.
Clinton’s popularity as president presented an ideal opportunity to set new directions
in educational policy. Instead, Clinton continued largely along the lines set by his
Republican predecessors. Clinton emphasized choice as a goal of educational policy
when he endorsed the charter school movement. In fact, he repeatedly touted the virtues
of competition and choice within the public school system. He also endorsed
performance-based accountability and standards-based reform. Rudalevige points out
that “the notion of ‘adequate yearly progress’ that later became the linchpin of accountability
in No Child Left Behind” was incorporated into the 1994 reauthorization of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA)
(2003, p. 64). However, states were given wide latitude in determining what counts as
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“adequate” and did not set a deadline for annual yearly progress (AYP) to move students
to academic profi ciency (DeBray, McDermott, & Wohlstetter, 2005).
IASA insisted that all children be held to the same high academic standards and the
Clinton administration’s use of Title I funds as leverage for the adoption of standards and
accountability reforms “was an outgrowth of the movement for state-level accountability
policies” (McDermott & DeBray-Pelot, 2009, p. 208). With the provision of $7 billion in
Title I funds, states “had to adopt curriculum standards and align assessments with those
standards. These assessments were to be given three times between grades 3 and 12” (Firestone,
2012, pp. 9–10). However, Clinton was unwilling to attach signifi cant consequences
(such as withholding federal funding) to states that failed to create rigorous systems of
standards and testing (Rudalevige, 2003). In fact, “Many states did not even comply with
the IASA requirements for state assessments based on curriculum standards” (McDermott
& DeBray-Pelot, 2009, p. 198). Refl ecting the push and pull of federalism, as well as
the prominence of more pressing domestic priorities such as health care reform, President
Clinton was unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to “encourage” state policy
makers to adopt rigorous systems of standards and assessment. However, his Republican
successor, George W. Bush, cleverly used the traditional liberal value of educational equity
as a rhetorical fl ag around which to rally advocates for school reform and improvement
and was thus able to expand signifi cantly the scope of federal control over education.
THE GEORGE W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION
Continuing the theme of higher standards and accountability begun under Reagan and
continued through Clinton, President George W. Bush sought systemically to improve
education by opening up the public education system (through expanded public school
choice and contracting out educational services), making it more transparent (school
report cards, a form of public accountability), incentivizing public employees (merit
pay and performance bonuses), and closely monitoring quality inputs (the mandate for
highly qualified teachers) and outcomes (performance reporting by student subgroup).
In a divergence from the Clinton administration, education was Bush’s top domestic policy
priority and he “promoted a more forceful role for the federal government” in education
(Finn & Hess, 2004, p. 38; Marschall & McKee, 2002). Building on his experience in
education reform as governor of Texas, Bush “envisioned a strong national role in education
policy . . . [and] had to lobby to eliminate language calling for the abolition of the
Department of Education from the 2000 Republican platform” (Rudalevige, 2003, p. 65).
Befi tting reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
(ESEA), NCLB ushered in a host of new federal mandates and directives on local education,
including mandatory statewide testing in grades three through eight in reading and
math, school report cards reporting results by student subgroup, and greater accountability
for student performance by teachers and school leaders (Fusarelli, 2004). AYP
became the benchmark against which schools were measured, even if it was problematic
and ill defi ned.
NCLB required identifi cation of schools in need of improvement and imposed
requirements of public school choice, the provision of supplemental educational
services, and school reconstitution (Fusarelli, 2004). Districts were required to identify
low-performing schools and develop comprehensive school improvement plans—a fi rst
for federal government involvement in local education (Herrington & Orland, 1992).
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According to Boyd, “NCLB’s requirement that students in ‘failing schools’ be given the
option of obtaining supplemental services or transferring to successful schools links
NCLB’s standards-based accountability to market-based reforms” (2003, p. 10). Extending
the theme of market-based accountability and in a divergence from the Clinton
administration, President Bush signed the nation’s fi rst federal voucher law, the DC
School Choice Incentive Act of 2003, which provided scholarships to up to 2,000 students
from low-income families to attend private schools.
Despite the uneven effectiveness of components of President Bush’s signature legislation,
NCLB represents “a signifi cant shift in federal education policy away from the
federal government being primarily a source of funding for low-income students to
being a major force in shaping the goals and outcomes of education” (Fusarelli, 2004,
p. 71). It “signifi cantly extended federal power over states’ assessment and accountability
policies” (McDermott & DeBray-Pelot, 2009). Finn and Hess note that NCLB “puts federal
bureaucrats in charge of approving state standards and accountability plans; sets a
single nationwide timetable for boosting achievement; and prescribes specifi c remedies
for underperforming schools” (2004, p. 39). Conley asserts that, “In one fell swoop, the
American educational system became federalized to an unprecedented degree” (2003,
p. 28). Although state policy makers had already created accountability systems, NCLB
created much momentum and pressure on states to implement performance-based
accountability systems based on student performance (Hanushek & Raymond, 2005).
Referring to it as “Great Society redux,” Finn and Hess assert that NCLB “marks a radical
break with conservative tradition, initiating a massive shift of education authority from
states to Washington” (2004, p. 53). To apply a football metaphor, President Bush took
the ball and ran with it, carrying federal control over education much farther than his
Republican or Democratic predecessors.
THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
The election of Barack Obama brought the promise of a further increased role of the
federal government in economic and social affairs (Bowling & Pickerill, 2013), as well as
in education. Possibly no greater evidence exists of the increasing influence of the federal
government on the daily operation of public schools than the Obama administration’s
Race to the Top (RTTT) program and its central curriculum reform initiative, the Common
Core State Standards (CCSS). As the following sections will discuss, the Obama
administration has demonstrated remarkable political skill in using an economic crisis
and an economic stimulus package to advance its domestic policy goals, particularly
with respect to education reform (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2011).
Race to the Top
The economic crisis that began in 2008 was unlike other fiscal downturns in recent
history. Consequently, policies were crafted and enacted in a unique policy environment.
The ways the federal, state, and local governments responded to the fiscal crisis revealed
the complex interplay between the economic environment and educational political processes
and outcomes and provides further insight about the intricate interconnectedness
of the three levels of government. The Obama administration decided to use this critical
time to beget major shifts in politics and schooling, viewing this period as an occasion for
opportunity, and engaging in the bold and ambitious work of reinventing educational
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institutions (Fusarelli & Young, 2011). In the words of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s
chief of staff, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” (Seib, 2008, p. 1).
The Obama administration’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)
or Stimulus Package provided approximately $100 billion for education (nearly twice
the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Education) and opened a policy window
through which to advance school reform and improvement in early learning, K-12, and
postsecondary education. However, about $75 billion of the $80 billion designated for
K-12 schools was funneled through formula-based programs, including the Individuals
with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and Title 1, leaving $5 billion of ARRA for competitive
grants. Included in this category are what became the administration’s most potent
reform levers, the RTTT state competition and the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund
(McDonnell & Weatherford, 2011). These initiatives addressed many of the same goals as
NCLB, but in the form of a competitive grant process. The signifi cant budget shortfalls
faced by governors and state legislators made the relatively small federal carrot appear
much larger than it was and diffi cult to resist.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was given unparalleled discretion in allocating
the funds. As a New York Times article noted, “the $100 billion in emergency aid for public
schools and colleges in the economic stimulus bill could transform Arne Duncan into
an exceptional fi gure in the history of federal education policy: a secretary of education
loaded with money and power to spend large chunks of it as he sees fi t” (Dillon, 2009
as cited in McDonnell & Weatherford, 2011). In an effort to incentivize states to undertake
substantive educational reform, the Obama administration chose to use competitive
grants as a carrot to spur reform, rather than the seldom-used federal stick of sanctions
contained in NCLB (McGuinn, 2012).
The criteria for the RTTT grants competition allowed the administration to specify
its reform goals while also giving it considerable leverage over the conditions imposed
on states applying for the funds. State applications were to be judged on 19 criteria that
included the lifting of all caps on the expansion of charter schools and the requirement
that applicant states could not have any laws barring the use of student achievement
data in evaluating teachers and principals (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2011). One of the
most contentious requirements was that states seeking RTTT funding were required to
adopt new CCSS.
These requirements marked a signifi cant departure from past practice of using a formula
grant process to allocate federal funds. RTTT proposals were to be evaluated based
on alignment with four administration reform priorities: 1) Adopting standards and
assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete
in the global economy and provide a common basis for school and student performance
measurement; 2) Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and
inform teachers and principals about how they can use these data to improve the teaching
process; 3) Improving teacher effectiveness through recruiting, developing, rewarding,
and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed
most; and 4) Turning around our lowest-achieving schools (targeting the bottom 5%).
The use of specifi c reform strategies as a condition for competitive stimulus grant
funding sparked unprecedented changes in state laws to conform to the RTTT requirements.
As McDonnell and Weatherford explain:
With absolutely no assurance that they would receive any Race to the Top funding,
17 states changed their laws to allow student test scores to be taken into account in
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evaluating teachers, 13 removed caps on the number of charter schools that can be
established in their state, 48 agreed to consider adopting common academic standards,
and 34 of those states formally approved the new standards within a few months of
their publication. After two rounds of competition among 47 applicants, 11 states
and the District of Columbia were awarded $4 billion in Race to the Top funding. 1
Yet the changes in state policies prompted by the competition extend beyond just the
winners. The willingness of state officials to change laws to conform with federal priorities
stemmed largely from a desire to obtain additional funding under tight fiscal
conditions. Nevertheless, in a number of states, officials saw Race to the Top as an
opportunity to move their own reform agendas. (2011, p. 312)
Only two states (Delaware and Tennessee) were awarded grants in the fi rst round
of the competition; only 10 states received awards in the second round (46 states and
the District of Columbia applied for the competitive grants in rounds one and two)
(McGuinn, 2012). States such as North Carolina, which lost in round one of the competition,
had invested heavily in the application process and revised their applications for
the second round. North Carolina and many other round two winners reworked their
proposals to more closely align with the RTTT reform priorities. The large competitive
grants in a time of economic crisis “generated a substantial amount of state policy change
in a short period of time, particularly for a program of its relatively small size . . . [and]
has had a sizable impact on the intensity and character of school reform discourse across
the country” (McGuinn, 2012, pp. 137–138). Such changes would have been politically
contentious and slow to occur in more stable economic times.
The RTTT grant initiative continues a chain of federal-level education reforms stemming
from ESEA. RTTT has the potential to “rewrite” American federalism as it relates to
public education, if federal lawmakers keep education as a priority item on the domestic
policy agenda and if they are willing to continue the carrot and stick approach to
Already, the heavy federal demands of RTTT have led to pushback by some school
districts and states. In Ohio, 80 school districts and charter schools have backed out of
the grant program in part because the cost of compliance was greater than the benefi
t of the funding (Binkley, 2013). Texas Governor Rick Perry objected to the idea of a
national curriculum and pointed out that the offered federal funds would only be suffi –
cient to operate schools for one day and were not worth the cost of compliance (Vergari,
2011). In Texas, the federal carrot is much too small to entice compliance. In addition,
policy makers in several states have also complained that the administration’s priorities
underemphasize improvement in rural education, which in many states still constitutes
a sizable number of schools (Vergari, 2011) (approximately 30% of schools in the United
States are rural schools).
In addition, some districts assert that new teacher evaluation systems mandated under
RTTT, in which half of a teacher’s performance evaluation is tied to student growth,
violate provisions contained in collective bargaining agreements with teachers (Binkley,
2013). An address by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to members of the American
Educational Research Association in April 2013 drew a mix of applause and boos from
members. One critic called RTTT “No Child Left Behind on steroids” and claimed that
it was “marginalizing and suffocating educators” (Lum, 2013, p. 1). Two aspects of the
RTTT requirements draw the most criticism: CCSS and changes in the evaluation of
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Nearly all states have adopted CCSS in English/language arts (46 states) and math
(45 states) and it represents a sweeping curriculum reform effort of unprecedented scale
(Porter, 2013; Ujifusa, 2013). Though technically not a “national curriculum,” CCSS serves
as a guiding framework for states to use in developing curriculum and realigning testing
(McCullen, 2013). Led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief
State School Officers, the movement has the strong support of the Obama administration
as well as some conservative think tanks such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Long recognized as a major educational problem in a relatively affl uent society with
high mobility, the common core refl ects an effort to standardize what students are learning
and when, as well as to bring states to the same level of standards. To encourage states
to adopt Common Core, the federal government, in its RTTT competition, awarded 40
of a possible 500 points (8% of the total) “if states documented that they were implementing
standards that were internationally benchmarked and would prepare students
for college and career” (McCullen, 2013, p. 3). Through RTTT, “states were incentivized
to create uniform goals” (Bowling & Pickerill, 2013, p. 327). McGuinn asserts that one of
the most important accomplishments of RTTT is the impetus it gave for “the adoption
of common academic standards and assessments” (2012, p. 144).
However, despite widespread adoption, resistance has begun to spring up in several
states. Critics contend that it amounts to a de facto national curriculum, the new standards
are actually lower than existing standards in many states, and there is little evidence
that the common core will improve student learning. Alabama withdrew from “the two
consortia developing tests aligned with the common core” (Ujifusa, 2013, p. 1). In Kentucky,
state schools chief Terry Holliday reported that the state “saw drops in profi ciency
rates of between 20 percent and 30 percent in language arts and math” (No Child Left
Behind Hearing, 2013, p. 2). In Indiana, lawmakers are seeking to pause implementation
of the common core, arguing that the mandated standards are lower in some key areas
than the state’s own standards. Opponents of the delay worry that failure to fully implement
the common core means the state will fall behind because textbook publishers and
standardized test makers “are moving quickly to adapt to the new standards” (Elliott,
2013, p. 2).
CCSS is the fi rst curriculum reform of its kind to emanate from the national level, be
fi ltered through state and district levels, and ultimately to be enacted by individual educators
in the classroom. Because implementation is where the proverbial rubber hits the
road, the success of the Common Core roll-out will be largely contingent on the practices
of the classroom teacher. As Cooper, Fusarelli, and Randall note, “Policies, no matter how
well designed, must be implemented successfully to achieve their intended effects” (2003,
pp. 83–84). As with much education policy, regardless of the level at which it is initiated,
school reforms are enacted by teachers and administrators at the school level. It is at this
level that reform policy inevitably succeeds or fails to achieve its goals. Only time will tell
the impact of school-level dynamics on the implementation of Common Core.
The Obama administration’s education reform initiatives rely on the use of goals, rewards,
and sanctions to pull and prod the system and the people in it toward better results.
The reform strategies generally rest on the following: externally set standards, externally
mandated assessments, and externally imposed rewards, sanctions, or interventions.
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They shift power from those within a school or district to outside powerbrokers such
as governors, state education agencies, state boards of education, and federal education
officials. The underlying theory is behaviorist: that the system isn’t capable of reforming
itself because it lacks clear goals and standards, feedback loops concerning its actual
performance, and the ability or will to reward its members’ successes and intervene in
(or discipline, or terminate/fire) their failures. This theory of action is most evident in
Obama’s position on teacher evaluation.
President Obama and Secretary Duncan have been vocal in their efforts to “underwrite
federal efforts to experiment with teacher pay plans that deviate from traditional
salary scales,” including merit pay linked to gains in student achievement (Hoff, 2008,
p. 2). This traditionally conservative idea is indicative of just how much ideological
convergence has occurred in education at the national and state levels in the past three
decades (Fusarelli, 2002a; Rudalevige, 2003).
President Obama has embraced the notion of performance-based accountability and
believes teacher performance should be tied, in part, to student achievement (Lewis &
Fusarelli, 2010). McGuinn observes that RTTT’s focus on teacher accountability “has
had a major impact on the relationship between the Democratic Party and the two
major teachers’ unions” (2012, p. 141). He states, “Obama and Duncan changed the
politics around teacher accountability by repeatedly highlighting the defi ciencies in our
teacher-evaluation and tenure systems” (p. 145). RTTT has weakened the power of the
National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT),
who have been forced to compromise on some of their positions because they are misaligned
with the Obama administration’s priorities. Even traditional sacred cows such
as salary schedules and teacher tenure have now become bargaining options rather than
absolutes. When your traditional Democratic allies begin to desert you, you have no
choice but to compromise (because the Republican Party is often outright hostile to
Much like Reagan and his pit bull Secretary of Education William Bennett, Obama
and Duncan have used the bully pulpit to keep the media, legislators (particularly state
legislators), and the public focused on substantive reform in teacher evaluation systems
(McGuinn, 2012). Because of RTTT, six states abolished laws that created fi rewalls prohibiting
student achievement data from being used in teacher evaluation. In the competition
to receive a RTTT grant, 11 states “enacted legislation that requires student-achievement
data to be used in teacher evaluation or tenure decisions” (McGuinn, 2012, p. 146). Still,
as McGuinn points out, many states have a long way to go in their efforts to substantively
reform the teacher evaluation process.
EDUCATION REFORM UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA, PART II
The reelection of President Obama afforded the president with an opportunity to make
a lasting imprint on education policy. Significantly, the first budget he put forth contained
funding for a major expansion of prekindergarten and early childhood education
programs, grants for high school improvement, and a new $1 billion RTTT competition
for higher education to improve student outcomes without raising tuition (Hoff, 2008;
Klein, 2013). These initiatives are further evidence of the expansion of federal authority
over education, expanding its scope of influence into pre-K and postsecondary education
in potentially significant ways.
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The focus on pre-K refl ects federal recognition of signifi cant gaps in access to highquality
preschool programs, particularly for those from low-income and middle-income
families. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it “the largest expansion of educational
opportunity in the 21st century” (Klein, 2013, p. 1). Of course, the proposal would
require states to gradually contribute to the program to pay for its cost; the expected
state share would be 10 percent in the fi rst year of the expanded program and gradually
increase over a decade to 75 percent. Regardless of whether states ever come close to
assuming this cost-sharing burden, federal policy makers will have succeeded in pushing
greater access to preschool education.
Signifi cantly, states would be required to meet several “quality standards for their programs
in order to tap the federal funds” (Klein, 2013, p. 2), including “state-level standards
for early learning, qualifi ed teachers, and assessment systems for early learning
providers” (Samuels, 2013, p. 2). This has raised the specter of the federal government
requiring highly qualifi ed teachers in every preschool classroom. House member Todd
Rokita (R-IN), who serves as chair of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy,
voiced concern that the administration’s proposal could amount to “an alarming expansion
of government power” (Klein, 2013, p. 3).
Waivers to NCLB
The Obama administration has come under fire for watering down key provisions of
NCLB by granting more than 34 states and the District of Columbia waivers from its
stringent test-based annual goals (McNeil, 2013). Of these, 19 states receiving waivers
from NCLB’s strict testing requirements were low performers on the National Assessment
of Education Progress (NAEP) (Chubb & Clark, 2013). Kati Haycock, president of
the Education Trust, who worked for the Obama administration reviewing states’ waiver
applications, asserted that the waivers allow states to shortchange underprivileged students
by relaxing requirements to close the achievement gap. In prepared testimony, she
stated, “This is very definitely a step backward from the civil rights commitment embedded
in” NCLB (No Child Left Behind Hearing, 2013, p. 1).
The Obama administration contends that the waivers grant states more freedom to
decide how best to address the achievement gap, while critics contend that the waivers
are granted in exchange for agreement on other parts of the administration’s education
agenda, a view with which Firestone (2012) concurs, when he observed, “When ESEA
bogged down in the partisan wrangling that had generally overcome Washington, the
administration used its authority to authorize waivers to states to move the agenda forward”
(p. 14). The precursor for these waivers may be found in the Education Flexibility
Partnership Act signed by President Clinton in 1999, which granted state waivers of many
requirements of federal education programs in exchange for results-based accountability,
although oversight and enforcement were largely lacking. However, Conley (2003) is
dismissive of federal waivers, asserting that in practice, little substantive relief is granted,
making the waiver largely symbolic. This situation may be analogous to periodic efforts
by state legislators toward decentralization, which Malen and Muncey (2000) argue give
the appearance of relinquishing power, yet retaining state authority in the form of regulations,
rules, mandates, and sanctions.
In a detailed comparative analysis of the state achievement gap, Chubb and Clark
found that states that simply agree “to replace NCLB’s requirements with alternatives
specifi ed by the Department” are more likely to be granted waivers “regardless of its track
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record” (2013, p. 10). Chubb and Clark also note, however, that states must “explain how
they will execute the [alternate] options to which they commit,” so just complying with
the administration’s agenda is insuffi cient to be granted a waiver (p. 10). Still, states who
fail to narrow the achievement gap will continue to receive federal money; in effect, the
small federal stick is being returned to the woodshed while the carrot remains. Haycock
observed that the waivers do not require states to provide options for children who
attend persistently failing schools (No Child Left Behind Hearing, 2013).
MORE CONVERGENCE THAN DIVERGENCE;
MIXED EFFORTS AT “CONTROL”
As the preceding history of federal education reform from President Reagan through
President Obama has shown, federal education policy appears to be converging along
some basic approaches to reform, including greater accountability, performance evaluation
(including merit pay), standards and assessment, and expanded school choice. This
policy convergence on education is best illustrated by the significant bipartisan consensus
on the passage of NCLB “when the parties readily agreed on substantially increased
federal spending, modestly enhanced public choice, and the framework of a national
accountability system” (Hess & McGuinn, 2002, p. 92). Reflecting these reforms, presidents
from both political parties have played a role in reshaping the rhetoric of school
reform, which has blurred the lines between the public and private spheres (Fusarelli &
Young, 2011; Miron, 2008). Reforms that would have been unthinkable even a decade
ago, such as the elimination of teacher tenure, are now firmly on the table, supported
(albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm) by both Democrats and Republicans.
In their analysis of President Reagan’s educational initiatives, Clark and Astuto predicted
that Reagan’s theme of devolution and decentralization would likely “continue
under successor administrations—Republican or Democratic” because of broad public
support for the reforms, continued decentralization and growing state control over education,
the very limited range of education reforms that are seriously considered and
debated in Washington, weakened infl uence of Congress and the professional associations,
and strong leadership in the Department of Education (1986, p. 12). In several
important respects, Clark and Astuto’s prediction proved erroneous, in part because of
the confl icting requirements inherent in the reforms, which are discussed in detail later
in this chapter.
For example, Finn and Hess saw signifi cant similarities between the education platforms
of Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore and asserted, “The
similarity of the Democratic and Republican positions resulted from both teams’ acceptance
of the same analysis of what ailed American K-12 education—and how to cure
it. This diagnosis hearkens back to the celebrated 1983 report A Nation at Risk and the
Washington-driven remedies urged in its aftermath by George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton”
(2004, p. 37). This elite ideological convergence in education policy among federal
lawmakers is signifi cant and may have lasting impact on education reform, particularly
insofar as it redefi nes the “new normal.” For example, many teachers, particularly
those with less than a decade of experience, know nothing other than standards-based
accountability and testing regimes. As a result, reforms that in the past would have
brought about vociferous opposition among teachers are now taken for granted, if not
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Changing Institutional Environment
The past three decades have changed the institutional context of education policy making,
“with greater emphasis on monitoring organizational performance” (Fusarelli,
2002b, p. 565). Education in the United States is becoming more tightly coupled. In part,
the national movement to more tightly couple the educational system, exemplified in
NCLB’s emphasis on testing, performance reporting, and accountability while simultaneously
opening the system up through expanded school choice, reflects growing dissatisfaction
with the condition of education and with the slow pace of educational reform
(Fusarelli & Johnson, 2004). A succession of presidents has sought to speed things up by
working to more tightly couple education policy making.
In a society with increasingly high mobility and international competition for jobs,
signifi cant differences in educational standards, expectations, and outcomes within and
between states are not only nonsensical but are harmful to students and to economic
growth. In our increasingly “fl at world,” individuals must be prepared to remain competitive
in a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming
increasingly irrelevant (Friedman, 2005). Hirschland and Steinmo assert that “strong
national policies on behalf of educational provision have been required to make right
the great ineffi ciencies and inequities promulgated by this very localism” (2003, p. 345).
A number of national organizations have played key roles in helping to nationalize education
policy, including the National Governors Association, Education Commission of
the States, and the Council of Chief State School Offi cers, which have raised the visibility
of interstate differences in educational attainment and standards and which facilitate the
coordination of state-level reform (CCSSO, 2008). As noted earlier, several presidents
have utilized these national organizations to spur reform and improvement and to further
their education policy agendas.
Institutional theorists observe that as public expectations and demands increase, so
too will government develop and expand to meet those expectations (Thomas & Meyer,
1984). As evidence, they point to the fact that “the jurisdiction of the state in the West has
tended to expand over time, as more and more aspects of social life have been incorporated
into the general welfare function that is the essence of the Western state” (Thomas &
Meyer, 1984, p. 468). With such expansion comes the likelihood of bureaucratic domination
“justifi ed by ever broader notions of justice and progress that go beyond the boundaries
of any individual state,” which in turn leads to greater uniformity in standards,
processes, and expectations (Spring, 2002; Thomas & Meyer, 1984, p. 470).
This uniformity is the product of three distinct, yet interrelated isomorphic processes:
(1) coercive isomorphism: the creation of mandates, regulations, rewards, and punishments
(for example, the development of high-stakes accountability systems); (2) normative
isomorphism: professional standards, certifi cation, and accreditation (for example,
changes in state standards for school leaders have had a dramatic impact on preparation
programs); and (3) mimetic isomorphism: the federal and state governments model,
copy, and build on successful reforms (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991). Collectively, these isomorphic
processes produce greater uniformity and homogeneity, which leads to a more
tightly coupled system, despite the limitations imposed by constitutional design (Fusarelli,
2002b, 2009). While not inconsequential, the limits imposed on U.S. presidents and lawmakers
with respect to education policy can be overcome through creative use of federal
carrots and, to a lesser extent, sticks—particularly when presidents effectively utilize the
bully pulpit and existing national organizations to advance their policy agenda.
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EFFECTS OF INCREASED FEDERAL INVOLVEMENT
Despite a “theology of localism,” educational historians and politics of education scholars
have observed that local control over education has slowly eroded over the past four
decades, as the federal and state governments exert ever-greater control over education
(Institute for Educational Leadership, 2001, p. 2; Fusarelli & Cooper, 2010). 2 Despite a
host of criticism and despite Common Core, federal involvement in education, with
its heavy emphasis on testing, standards, and accountability, has, in the view of critics,
narrowed the curriculum, focused attention to tested subjects, and encouraged teachers
to teach to the test (English & Steffy, 2001; Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003). Although
the new Common Core standards are meant to encourage the teaching of higher-order
thinking skills, ultimately, testing drives what and how teachers teach, particularly when
teacher performance is tied to student growth on standardized assessments.
Encouraged by the federal government, states have developed rewards and consequences
for students (in the form of promotion and exit exams), for teachers (in the
form of merit pay and performance tied to student growth), and for school leaders (in
the form of school performance evaluations). Such initiatives “represent top-down strategies
to improve student achievement through tightened centralized control” (Fusarelli &
Fusarelli, 2003, p. 170).
The almost unquestioning adoption of such reforms refl ects the infusion of the ideals
and practices of the New Public Management in education, which critiques the traditional,
bureaucratic public administration paradigm and replaces it with tools adopted
from the private sector, including outcomes-based accountability, benchmarking, contracting
out of public services, vouchers, merit pay, and performance bonuses, among
others (Peters, 2001; Terry, 2003). Scholars studying public administration have noted
that the newer breed of Democrats, exemplifi ed in former President Clinton, Al Gore,
and President Obama, accept this paradigm and advocate for its application (Terry, 2003).
This market-driven New Public Management paradigm emerged in the 1980s and 1990s
and has become a dominant approach in public management (Terry, 1998). Fusarelli and
Johnson cite the incorporation of outcomes-based accountability provisions into NCLB
as “another example of the New Public Management applied to education” (2004, p. 120).
As Bill Boyd noted in an address at the American Educational Research Association in
2007, we have witnessed a signifi cant paradigm shift from local control and the separation
of education and politics in the 1960s to the paradigm that education is too important
to be left solely to professionals; from one of local control (almost no federal control)
over education to NCLB and now RTTT; from disconnected goals and curricula to systemic
alignment, national standards, and testing. As Boyd noted, Title VI of ESEA stated
that nothing in the act gave the federal government authority to exercise any direction,
supervision, or control over education, and yet, when ESEA was reauthorized as NCLB
in 2001, it violated every pledge in Title VI of the original legislation.
Today, the basic tenets of federal control (much less state control) are rarely questioned.
Conley points out that the federal government “now feels free to examine educational
functioning, effectiveness, and methods” (through such practices as tying federal
funds to research-based best practices) (2003, p. 24). Despite recognized constitutional
limitations of federal authority over education, NCLB is signifi cant because it “moved the
federal role closer to the instructional core of local schools and classrooms” (McDonnell,
2005, p. 21). The language written into NCLB ostensibly to protect local and state control
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over curriculum, standards, governance, and accountability confl icts with many of the
pronouncements, rules, and regulations coming from the USDOE. The result is largely
empty, symbolic rhetoric about local control. As scholars of federalism have noted, once
a government exercises infl uence or control over a policy domain, little incentive exists
to cede that control and this analysis of federal education initiatives from Presidents
Reagan through Obama offers little hope they will do so.
Although the Obama administration recognizes the limits of its power “to force states
and local districts to do things that they do not want to do,” administration offi cials
also fi rmly believe in “the need to use federal power to close racial and socioeconomic
achievement gaps, and their belief that certain kinds of policy changes [such as merit
pay, performance-based accountability systems, common standards, and school choice]
could generate major improvement” in education across the country (McGuinn, 2012,
Performance reporting is reshaping educational politics and creating new intraorganizational
dynamics between federal, state, and local policy makers—producing
greater impetus for organizational change (Fusarelli, 2002b). The utter pervasiveness
of performance-based accountability in education distinguishes this era from previous
ones (Linn, 2000); nearly a decade and a half later, that trenchant observation continues
to ring true. At the federal and state levels, and among members of both political parties,
performance-based accountability has been embraced as a best practice to improve education
(Lewis & Fusarelli, 2010; National Governors Association, 1999).
Although an argument could be made that signifi cant differences exist in the educational
platforms of Republican and Democratic presidents—for example, both Reagan
and George W. Bush supported voucher initiatives, while Clinton and Obama opposed
them (although the DC voucher system remains in place as President Obama has chosen
not to fi ght that fi ght)—these differences are on fairly marginal, fringe issues. Presidents
Reagan and Bush knew they would be unable to get voucher bills through Congress.
Although Reagan gave lip service to vouchers, he invested “very little political capital” in
the effort, a stance also adopted by his Republican successor, George H. W. Bush (Cibulka,
1996, p. 382). Fusarelli observed, “With the exception of disagreement on fringe issues,
there has been an emerging (even astonishing) degree of ideological consensus among
Republican and Democratic presidents about national education goals and reforms”
(2002a, p. 158).
THE FEDERAL ROLE: BOTH LEADER AND FOLLOWER
Although federal involvement in educational reform has increased significantly (and in
important ways) in the past three decades, it is important to note that many of these
reforms have built on state-level initiatives (Fusarelli & Cooper, 2010). For example, when
Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander led the National Governors Association (NGA) in
the mid-1980s, the NGA studied educational reform in the states and released a major
report, A Time for Results, many of whose recommendations were incorporated into the
education platform of George H. W. Bush (Beyle, 1996). The report included recommendations
for merit pay, teacher retention, school report cards, identification and state
takeover of failing schools, and school choice (Alexander, 1986). Alexander later served as
secretary of education in the Bush administration. The expansion of federal control over
education has been enabled through the efforts of key Southern governors (Alexander,
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Clinton, and G. W. Bush)—all of whom when moved to a national stage utilized their
experience to promote education reform across state boundaries (McDonnell, 2005).
As Mazzoni points out, state policy makers “had long been active on education
issues . . . [and] did not need the federal government to cede them that terrain” (1995,
p. 55). The federal government did not discover the achievement gap nor was it the
initiator of reforms such as higher standards, testing, and accountability (Hunt, 2002).
Former North Carolina Governor James Hunt, who has a distinguished reputation as a
leader in state-level education reform, pointed out that none of the reforms discussed
earlier originated with federal offi cials, nor were federal offi cials the fi rst to be concerned
about placing a highly qualifi ed teacher in every classroom (Hunt, 2002). Firestone
(2012) observed that, “Much of the federal regulation of state government was to
demand of everyone what had become common practice” (p. 29). However, “frequently,
Congress takes [education reform] models from a few states’ laws and imposes them on
all states as mandates or grant conditions” (McDermott & DeBray-Pelot, 2009, p. 194). In
this way, increased federal control is signifi cant because it is less tolerant of major stateto-
state differences in education policy and reform. While the federal government may
not always lead the way, it increasingly pushes laggard states to catch up to those leading
its reform agenda.
Federal offi cials use their position to issue challenges and generate ideas and momentum
for education reform, often creating policies consistent with and that extend
emerging state-level reforms, including curriculum frameworks and standards, school
report cards (including disaggregation of data to the student level), expanded testing,
performance-based accountability measures, and school choice (Conley, 2003; Doyle,
Cooper, & Trachtman, 1991; Goertz, 1996; Wong, 2004). Throughout the 1990s, “states
continued to increase the links between tests and consequences” (Firestone, 2012, p. 9).
NCLB built on “reform policies and programs in place in a number of states, while
extending, strengthening, and prodding others to engage in systemic, standards-based
reform to improve educational outcomes for all students” (Fusarelli, 2005, p. 128). Vergari
observed that “increased federal control has further reinforced state reform initiatives
and power” (2011, p. 15). McDermott and DeBray-Pelot (2009) reach a similar
conclusion when they note that federal programs such as IASA and NCLB, which dramatically
expand federal authority, were made possible in part by the earlier efforts of
state policy makers to extend their power over education at the local level.
Several decades ago, Iannaccone made a similar observation when he noted that federal
intervention has “enlarged the scope of education and lifted the sights of educators,
in spite of their initial opposition, to articulation of new values” (1975, pp. 139–140, cited
in Mosher, 1977). In the case of RTTT, the initiative “has had a signifi cant impact on the
national policy discourse around education and pushed many states to propose or enact
important policy changes, particularly around charter schools and teacher-evaluation
processes” (McGuinn, 2012, p. 136). Cooper and Fusarelli (2009) observe that federal
initiatives, from ESEA to NCLB (to now RTTT), often spur state activism and reform,
particularly insofar as they empower state-level policy makers to engage in systemic
reform and to develop and refi ne statewide testing and performance-based accountability
systems. Manna (2006) refers to this phenomenon as “borrowing strength,” whereby
federal policy makers promote their policy priorities by building on and extending statelevel
reform initiatives, a view with which Firestone (2012) concurs. We believe the federal
and state governments borrow strength from each other, as initiatives or reforms
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undertaken at one level of government often spur extensions or expansions of related
initiatives in the other.
Despite the growing federal influence over education documented in this chapter, an
influence that is disproportionate to its actual fiscal contribution to education, some
significant limits to federal authority remain that mitigate, to some extent, its influence.
McGuinn (2012) provides an excellent summary of the challenges faced in implementing
RTTT, including state and federal capacity gaps. State department of education funding
is a popular source of cuts during difficult budget times; further, most state departments
of education, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, are woefully understaffed.
Despite a massive expansion in the number of federal rules and regulations pertaining
to education since passage of ESEA, staffing levels at the USDOE are 44 percent below
the level of staffing in various agencies responsible for education when the department
was created (Vergari, 2011). Monitoring compliance and providing technical assistance
is difficult under such constraints. Since passage of ESEA, states have been able, within
limits, to “resist and reshape federal education policy in accordance with their perceived
interests” (Vergari, 2011, p. 16).
Given the well-documented diffi culties of implementing federal programs (Odden,
1991), particularly education programs that encounter state and local opposition, and
the relatively small carrot of federal funds available in the federal toolkit, policy makers
at all levels recognize the limits to federal power (although those limits appear not to
have stopped federal offi cials from trying to extend them). In the case of RTTT, “there are
likely to be signifi cant differences between what states originally pledge to secure RTTT
funds and what actually happens” (Vergari, 2011, p. 25). This has led some scholars to
view the increased federal role not so much as a revolution as an evolution refl ecting the
push and pull of politics and policy making (McDonnell, 2005; Vergari, 2011). McDonnell
sees an “almost linear development from the ideas embodied in America 2000 to
IASA and on to NCLB” (2005, p. 35).
McDermott and DeBray-Pelot view it as an incremental revolution—that changes in
“the federal defi nitions of adequate yearly progress and corrective action” contained in
NCLB appeared to be incremental, technical changes but actually “produced a revolutionary
extension of federal power over education policy” (2009, p. 194). They observe
that the evolution of policies “from the fairly broad regulation of IASA to the strict mandates
of NCLB shows how incremental change can produce a revolution in intergovernmental
relations” (p. 200). In effect, states must “ask federal permission before enacting
certain kinds of policies over which they would previously have had sole authority”
If future presidents expand the use of competitive grants in ESEA, using RTTT as
the model, then this much larger pot of money could be used to leverage even more
substantive reform, increasing the federal infl uence dramatically, preventing RTTT
fade, and blocking political opposition from sabotaging reform efforts (Klein, 2013;
McGuinn, 2012). McGuinn believes that “RTTT’s competitive grants program represents
a new approach to using federal funds to drive school reform” (2012, p. 153). Several
other trends suggest continued federal activism in education reform. International
tests such as TIMMS and PISA are becoming more sophisticated and the international
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comparisons that result from such tests further reinforce the idea that education is a
boundary-spanning national imperative, too important to be left to local policy makers.
Local problems may require local solutions, but national problems require national solutions,
even if the authority to do so is not explicitly granted in the Constitution. 3
Conley believes that “the cumulative effect of these [federal education reform] policies
is to insert the federal government into local schools in an ever-widening circle—
formally and directly, informally and indirectly—in ways that exert infl uence over
education practices. When combined with state policies that also seek to appropriate
the local policy agenda, the available ‘policy space’ within which local schools operate is
signifi cantly restricted” (2003, p. 3). Given the growth and expansion of federal power
and authority in domestic policy, especially in education as highlighted in this chapter,
available evidence suggests that “the limitations imposed by constitutional design can be
overcome” (Fusarelli, 2009, p. 263). At the national level, we believe that increased federal
activism in education reform is making the politics of education even more exciting, as it
has led to the creation of new political alliances and for some rather unlikely bedfellows.
Further research is needed to determine how these new federal initiatives will impact
reform and improvement in schooling in the United States.
1. The 11 states are Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina,
Ohio, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
2. Much like belief in Santa Claus, this belief in local control continues to exert a fairly powerful hold on local
policy makers and serves as a counterstory to reform efforts at the state and federal levels, despite much evidence
to the contrary.
3. Education is not alone in this respect. The scope of federal authority in virtually all policy domains far
exceeds what all but a few of the Founding Fathers could have possibly envisioned.
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