The Reality of Delays

Delays in working out regulations and guidelines, pauses for changes in administrations, and other processes can add several years to the gap between the President's signing a bill and the agency in charge sending out notices of a law's activation date. These are the building blocks it takes to initiate a new major policy area from the federal level, as we have seen in our glimpse of the implementation of bilingual education, Title IX, and special education.

Impressive Action Despite the Odds

Given these pitfalls, it is impressive how many equity issues the federal government embraced and how much legislation it produced that affected schools. During the fertile time from the passage of ESEA in 1965 to the end of the 1970s, bilingual education, equal access and treatment for women students, equal access and treatment of children with disabilities, improvements in Native Americans' schools, and other programs took hold.

The Federal Government's Agenda-Setting Role

It is difficult to prove the benefits of these federal education programs, but at the very least, the federal government put them on the agenda with some regulations, expectations, and assistance. In none of these cases is it easy to document educational outcomes. But these items were, with some exceptions, not even on the radar at state and local levels before federal action. In cases where some of the states were ahead, as in special education, bilingual and other areas, federal advocates were able to benefit from this groundwork and use their national scope to generalize the concerns to other states. It's impressive to see that many new equity programs for new target populations developed in such a short time and in such a complicated system as federalism.

The Half-Truth About the Federal Role

The narrative of a relentless, engulfing federal control of education is a half-truth. The trouble with a half-truth is that half of it is true. The half that's true here is that there is a much greater presence of federal programs and rules in America's schools today than there was in 1950. [1] Nonetheless, in 1965 the percent of local budgets provided by the federal government was 7.9 %, while in 2008, it was 8.0 %. From 1965 until 2009, it never went lower than 6.1 % or higher than 8.3 %.

  • [1] This cute but important point is found in my lecture notes from Professor Eric McKitrick's course in mid-nineteenth century America, Columbia University, fall 1966.
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