The ongoing expansion of federal influence over education in the United States provides a particularly salient time to consider how education federalism should be structured to achieve the nation's education goals. One of the nation's unfulfilled and yet essential education goals is to ensure that all students receive equal access to an excellent education. A variety of scholars and, most recently, the federal Equity and Excellence Commission have offered proposals for advancing this goal. By building on this growing momentum for reform, I argue that disrupting the nation's longstanding approach to education federalism--which I define as the balance of power between federal, state, and local governments that emphasizes substantial state autonomy over education--is necessary for a successful national effort to achieve this goal. I then provide a foundational theory for strengthening the federal role in education by analyzing the essential elements of a successful reform effort based upon research regarding the strengths of federal education policymaking and upon identification of the missing elements of current reforms. Finally, I respond to many of the potential arguments against disrupting education federalism. For instance, I argue that National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius continues to provide ample room for Congress to expand the federal role in education in ways that are needed to build a more equitable education system. I also explain that although strengthening the federal role in education will reduce some forms of state and local control over education, it also will provide states and localities new forms of control.
TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. THE CASE FOR REEXAMINING EDUCATION FEDERALISM A. The Benefits of the Current Structure of Education Federalism B. Five Reasons for Reexamining Education Federalism 1. Education Federalism Does Not Consistently Reap Some of the Benefits It Is Designed to Achieve 2. Education Federalism Has Served as One of Several Important Roadblocks to Reforms Aimed at Ensuring Equal Educational Opportunity 3. Education Federalism Should Be Reexamined Because States Have Refused to Take the Necessary Comprehensive and Sustained Action That Is Needed to Ensure Equal Access to an Excellent Education 4. Education Federalism's Insistence on State and Local Control of School Finance Systems Invites Inequality 5. Education Federalism Should Be Guided by Research Rather than Primarily by Education Politics II. A THEORY FOR DISRUPTING EDUCATION FEDERALISM A. Prioritizing a National Goal of Ensuring Equal Access to an Excellent Education B. Incentivizing Development of Common Opportunity-to-Learn Standards 1. Understanding Common OTL Standards 2. Shepherding a Successful Effort for Developing Common OTL Standards C. Focusing Rigorous Federal Research and Technical Assistance on the Most Effective Approaches for States to Provide Equal Access to an Excellent Education D. Distributing Financial Assistance Focused on Closing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps E. Demanding Continuous Improvement from States on Ensuring Equal Access to an Excellent Education Through Federal Oversight that Utilizes a Collaborative Enforcement Model F. Establishing the Federal Government as the Final Guarantor of Equal Access to an Excellent Education by Strengthening the Relationship Between Federal Influence and Responsibility III. THE BALANCE SHEET FOR DISRUPTING EDUCATION FEDERALISM A. Understanding Why National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius Leaves Ample Constitutional Room for Expanding the Federal Role in Education B. Legislative and Executive Authority Provides a More Fruitful Avenue for Reform than Judicial Authority C. How Disrupting Education Federalism Would Empower New Aspects of State and Local Control of and Accountability for Education and Encourage Innovation D. Building the Political Will for Education Reform that Ensures Equal Access to an Excellent Education CONCLUSION: TOWARD A MORE EQUITABLE FUTURE INTRODUCTION
The United States continues to tolerate a longstanding educational opportunity gap. Today, it relegates at least ten million students in low-income neighborhoods and millions more minority students to poorly performing teachers, substandard facilities, and other inferior educational opportunities. (1) This occurs in part because the United States invests more money in high-income districts than in low-income districts, a sharp contrast to other developed nations. (2) Scholars and court decisions also have documented the sizeable intrastate disparities in educational opportunity. (3) In addition, interstate inequalities in educational opportunity represent the largest component of disparities in educational opportunity. (4) The harmful nature of interstate disparities falls hardest on disadvantaged schoolchildren who have the most educational needs, (5) and states do not possess the resources and capacity to address the full scope of these disparities. (6) Furthermore, research confirms that as the gap in wealth has grown between low-income and high-income families, the achievement gap between children in low-income and high-income families also has widened. (7)
Although equal educational opportunity remains a central goal of the U.S. education system, it has never been realized. (8) Indeed, the United States relies heavily on schools to overcome the influence of a child's circumstances, such as family income and structure, on life opportunities despite evidence that schools are not effectively serving this function. (9) Fulfilling the goal of equal educational opportunity will become increasingly important to the nation's interests given research that reveals that the United States will need more highly skilled workers to fill jobs that meet the economy's demands. This research also indicates that the achievement gap must be closed to ensure that students from rapidly growing minority communities possess the educational skills necessary to contribute to the economy. (10)
The nation's approach to education federalism--which I define as a balance of power between the federal, state and local governments that emphasizes substantial state autonomy over education--has played a significant and influential role in undermining federal reforms that have attempted to address disparities in educational opportunity. (11) In a recent article, I examined how the nation's approach to education federalism served as one of the principal obstacles to three of the most comprehensive federal attempts to advance equal educational opportunity: school desegregation, federal school finance litigation, and the No Child Left Behind Act. (12) Although some contend that these decisions and results are driven more by a lack of political will rather than education federalism, (13) the consistency with which federalism has arisen as a real or imagined obstacle to reforms aimed at ensuring equal educational opportunity suggests that it is a significant contributing factor even if other factors also adversely influenced these reforms.
Given this compelling history and the nation's deeply entrenched educational opportunity gap, I propose a theory for strategically restructuring and strengthening the federal role in education in the United States to establish the necessary foundation for a national effort to ensure equal access to an excellent education. This restructuring and strengthening of the federal role in education will disrupt the nation's longstanding approach to education federalism because it would require shifting the balance of power in education away from the state and local governments and toward the federal government. The United States would then need to adopt a new understanding of education federalism that embraces the federal government as the guarantor of equal opportunity because it is the only government with the capacity and sufficient incentive to lead a national effort to achieve this widely supported--yet persistently elusive--goal. Although this would not require federalizing the nation's education system as at least one scholar has recommended, (14) it would require acceptance of a larger federal role in education to hold the states accountable for ensuring that all students receive equal access to an excellent education.
Throughout this Article, I define equal access to an excellent education as the opportunity for all students to attend a high-quality school that enables them to effectively pursue their life goals, to become engaged citizens, and to develop their abilities to their full potential. (15) Equal access to an excellent education includes enabling all students to receive...