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From Devolution to DeVos: A Brief History of the Federal Role in American Education

The current debate over Republican President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has revived age-old questions about the proper role of the federal government in American schools. The national imprint on education has never been large, but it has long been contentious.

The first American government to address education was the Congress of the Confederation, when it established the Land Ordinance of 1785. The law divided public lands in the northwestern United States into townships having thirty-six sections of 640 acres each, with the revenue from the sale of section sixteen of each township to be earmarked for public education. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created a government for the territory north of the Ohio River, where “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The United States Constitution, ratified in 1789, made no mention of education. Article I, Section 8 provided Congress with the “power to… provide for the… general welfare of the United States.” The Tenth Amendment, approved in 1791, nonetheless assigned to the states those “powers not delegated” to the federal government. The primary authority for educating Americans therefore devolved to the states.

The federal government did play a role, however. The census of 1840 included the first national statistics on education and illiteracy. In the second year of the Civil War, Republican President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Morrill Act of 1862, which offered land to “each loyal state” for the construction of an agricultural college. After the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau in the Department of War created schools for former slaves, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior established day and boarding schools, on and off reservations, for Native Americans. Democratic President Andrew Johnson signed a law in 1867 which established the first federal Department of Education to collect and disseminate national data. Two years later, the department lost its cabinet status, becoming the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior. In 1929 it became the Office of Education.

As in other realms, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt enhanced the national government’s jurisdiction over education. To combat the Great Depression of the 1930s, New Deal agencies financed vocational training and public school construction. In 1937, Roosevelt’s Advisory Commission on Federal Aid to Education recommended federal assistance to children in public, and, in some cases, nonpublic schools, though Congress failed to act on the recommendations.  Just prior to American entrance into World War II, Roosevelt signed the Lanham Act of 1941, which funded education and child care for the children of mothers employed by defense industries. A free college education was one of the benefits offered to returning veterans in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill of Rights, which Roosevelt initiated in 1944.

Under Democratic President Harry Truman in 1950, the Housing Act allocated loans for the construction of college residence halls, while Public Laws 815 and 870 distributed “impact aid” for public school construction in the vicinity of naval and military bases. Under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, the Office of Education joined the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1955, Eisenhower convoked the first White House Conference on Education, which advocated federal assistance for public school construction. A year after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which sent “categorical” federal money to colleges and universities for student loans and fellowships as well as research and development, and to public and nonpublic primary and secondary schools for mathematics, science, and foreign language instruction.

The federal presence in education grew dramatically under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Less than three weeks after the assassination of his predecessor John Kennedy, Johnson signed the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963, the first major federal aid for college construction. Johnson also enacted the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided federal loans and scholarships to college students.

In the same year, Johnson finally filled the prescription of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisory commission, delayed in Congress for almost three decades by conflicts over aid to racially segregated and religious schools, and battles over the proper federal responsibility in education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which outlawed de jure racial segregation) settled the first dispute, church-state negotiations resolved the second, and reform of the House Rules Committee (where members of both parties had blocked votes on school bills) permitted Congress to address the third. Then Johnson and his robust Democratic legislative majority enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Though ostensibly providing “categorical” aid to children in impoverished school districts, the law represented the first broad federal support for public and, in smaller doses, nonpublic schools.

Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford sought to reduce the federal footprint in public schools and to increase the federal presence in nonpublic schools through vouchers and tuition tax credits. Yet they largely failed, as federal public education budgets swelled, federal courts ordered busing to achieve racial balance in public schools practicing de facto segregation, and nonpublic school aid bills lost in Congress. In 1972 Nixon signed Title IX legislation prohibiting gender discrimination at federally funded schools and colleges. In 1975 Ford enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which ensured equal access for disabled students. Democratic President Jimmy Carter not only raised federal public school expenditures and opposed nonpublic school aid, but in 1979 he divided the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into a Department of Health and Human Services and, for the first time in over a century, a Department of Education.

Carter’s successor, Republican Ronald Reagan, promised to abolish the new Department of Education, only to have members of his own party join congressional Democrats in stopping him. Instead, Reagan’s Secretary of Education Terrel Bell appointed a commission, whose 1983 report described the U.S. as a “nation at risk” because of its failing schools, and called for greater emphasis on academic “excellence,” in addition to the “equity” espoused by Lyndon Johnson. In 1988, for the first time, the federal government required annual tests for students accepting assistance under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Reagan’s successors from both parties shared his quest for excellence as well as equity. In 1989 Republican George H.W. Bush convened only the third summit of all of the nation’s governors, and the first devoted to education. The president and the governors, including Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton, established the first set of national education goals. When Clinton followed Bush to the White House, he added to the list. In 1994, for the first time, the Secretary of Education could withhold federal monies if a state did not test its students.

The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which Republican President George W. Bush signed in 2002, doubled down on excellence and equity. It mandated annual testing of third- and eighth-grade public school students in mathematics and reading, and nearly all students had to be “proficient” in these subjects (as determined by the states) by 2014. If a school did not achieve “adequate yearly progress” as measured by these tests, it would have to close, re-opening as a lightly regulated, often privately operated, yet publicly financed “charter” school. For the first time, in order to help narrow the “achievement gap” between Asian-American and non-Hispanic white students on the one hand and African-American and Latino students on the other, public schools would have to classify their pupils by race, class, (dis)ability, and national origin. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act authorized thirteen times as many federal dollars as Johnson’s original Elementary and Secondary Education Act had.

Amid criticism from both parties that the No Child Left Behind Act had spurred many states to lower their standards to meet the legislation’s overly ambitious goals, and that there was no discernible connection between the law and higher student test scores, Democratic President Barack Obama introduced his own reforms. In 2009, he unveiled “Race to the Top,” a competition among the states for federal grants based on the states’ commitments to academic excellence. The same year, the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers produced a “Common Core” of voluntary national standards in math and reading. By the end of 2012, Common Core had become a virtual substitute for the No Child Left Behind Act, as the Obama Administration had issued waivers from the law’s requirements to forty-six states and the District of Columbia in return for their adoption of Common Core. What the governors had intended as each state’s choice, Obama’s mostly Republican detractors charged, the president had transformed into a federal mandate.

Obama responded in 2015 by signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, which increased federal public school aid and continued the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing provisions, but removed its federal goals and sanctions. The federal government still required that public schools must improve, but left it up to the states to determine how—and how much. States could decide whether or not to adopt Common Core, without federal influence. With less than a dime of every education dollar coming from Washington, the Tenth Amendment was alive and well.

The bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in some ways obscured the deeper tensions between, and within, the two parties over the federal role in education. To the longstanding fissure between Republicans and Democrats over aid to nonpublic schools, one could now add the more recent split among Democrats over aid to charter schools, which the Obama Administration embraced as alternatives to traditional public education, but public school teachers’ unions and their staunchest congressional allies feared as threats to it. So even before her controversial confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos, a critic of Common Core and a proponent of federal support for nonpublic and charter schools, had given virtually every Democrat in the Senate a reason to oppose her.

Lawrence J. McAndrews is Visiting Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong. His most recent book is Refuge in the Lord: Catholics, Presidents, and the Politics of Immigration, 1981–2013.