ESSA and the shifting landscape at the US Department of Education

Obama signs ESSA

The year 2015 was momentous for American education for two somewhat contradictory reasons—it marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).   ESEA established a major federal presence in K-12 schooling for the first time, while ESSA (the latest reauthorization of ESEA) significantly rolled back the federal role in education.  Americans have always been schizophrenic about federal involvement in education, with conservatives opposed to federal interference in what they see as a state issue, and liberals supportive of federal efforts to address pervasive socio-economic and racial achievement gaps.  Beginning in the 1990s, a centrist bipartisan coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans coalesced around using federal policy to prod states to take steps to improve educational opportunity and workforce development.

A new federal focus on accountability for student achievement and school reform was outlined in the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 and was given more “teeth” in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001. These developments involved the federal government for the first time in core matters of school governance—such as academic standards, student assessment, teacher quality, school choice, and school restructuring—and fundamentally altered the relationship between the federal government and the states in education policy. They also severely strained the federal grant-in-aid system and the administrative capacity of the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The challenge in the post-NCLB era was that the feds demanded that states develop new systems for tracking and disseminating student achievement data and intervening in struggling schools. States resented this new level of federal involvement and struggled to meet all of the federal mandates. Consequently, as federal goals and methods diverged from those of the states, the intergovernmental relationship underwent a significant transformation. As the main interpreter and implementer of federal education policy, the ED has played a crucial (if under-explored) role in this transformation.

Federalism, and the lack of national constitutional authority to directly impose school reform on the states, has greatly complicated American politics and policymaking in education.  It has forced the federal government to pursue its goals for school reform indirectly—through the grant-in-aid system and state education agencies. The U.S.’s intergovernmental relationship with education 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 ED 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 politically unpopular changes they likely would not have undertaken in the absence of federal pressure. For the ED to be effective in gaining state compliance with federal education policies, it needs sufficient statutory authority, administrative capacity, and political support. However, throughout most of the thirty-five year history of the department, these resources have not been present.

The department has always been a political hot potato and the anti-ED push joined forces with the anti-standards push in support of ESSA, which helped to codify a reduction in staffing and authority at ED.  As usual, Republican presidential candidates are calling for the abolition of the department as they run in the GOP primary.  This is extremely unlikely to occur, but ongoing administrative capacity deficits within federal, state, and local education departments present a formidable challenge to the ambitious education reform agenda of the contemporary period.

The ED has long lacked the staff, resources, and technical expertise to provide sustained supervision and guidance of state compliance with federal education programs. Its programs and grant expenditures have grown dramatically in the past thirty years, with federal education spending increasing from $1.5 billion to about $60 billion, when adjusted for inflation, (an increase of 40 times) between 1965 and 2010.  

While federal education spending has increased dramatically, federal funding for the ED’s operations has not grown even close to proportionally.  In 2012 the ED had the third largest discretionary budget of the 15 federal Cabinet agencies but the smallest staff. As its website notes, “With a planned fiscal year 2010 level of 4,199, ED’s staff is 44 percent below the 7,528 employees who administered Federal education programs in several different agencies in 1980, when the Department was created.”

As a result, the ED has been tasked with overseeing a growing enterprise, but has been specifically hamstrung by Congress in order to prevent it from engaging in that oversight with rigor. This led the ED to appeal to Congress in 2015 for help in dealing with a growing workload with a declining workforce. ED’s lack of constitutional authority and administrative capacity has compelled them to outsource education reform to the states.  The department’s continued reduction in staff, however, means that they are also losing the capacity to monitor and support what states are doing.  That of course is exactly what opponents of the federal role in education want.  As we enter the new ESSA era of federal policy, a capacity-challenged ED will have to discover how to navigate this new political and policy terrain, and find ways to partner with state education agencies (which face their own capacity challenges) to advance the cause of education reform.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is drawn from the following article: Patrick McGuinn, “Schooling the State: ESEA and the Evolution of the U.S. Department of Education,”RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences1(3), 77–94 (2015).