The federal role in school reform: Obama's "race to the top".

Author:Viteritti, Joseph P.
Position:Symposium: Educational Innovation and the Law


Given the level of discretionary funding that has been made available to him by Congress and the way he has chosen to exercise his administrative authority, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is for all practical purposes the most powerful federal executive in the history of American education, pushing the boundaries of the federal/ state relationship to new limits. This essay provides a critical review of federal education policy enacted under President Barack Obama with a particular focus on the centerpiece Race to the Top initiative implemented by Secretary Duncan. It assesses the Obama policy in the context of the evolving federal role in education that began with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 as an effort to improve educational opportunity for economically disadvantaged students. It argues that while the Obama agenda is a reasonable attempt to reshape educational policy (and particularly No Child Left Behind), contrary to what the administration claims, its approach to education policy is neither entirely research based nor apolitical, and the competitive nature of the funding may eventually prove to undermine the redistributive objectives of the original ESEA legislation.

Part I of this essay traces the evolution of federal education policy. It will begin by examining the objectives and strategies originally enunciated by President Lyndon B. Johnson with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It will then explain how these goals changed over the years through the administration of President Bill Clinton, as the program became less concerned with directing resources to children who were economically disadvantaged and more concerned with accountability. Part II reviews the details of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted during the administration of President George W. Bush, which established the political and programmatic context for policymaking during the Obama administration. Although this legislation was designed to impose accountability on states that accepted federal funding, it also highlighted the needs of children who were denied an opportunity for a decent education, a disproportionate number of whom were economically disadvantaged children of color.

Part III scopes out the broad outlines of the Obama education agenda, while Part IV assesses the main provisions of the Race to the Top (RTT) initiative. Particular attention is given in the latter to those provisions that pertain to testing and standards, teacher evaluation, turnaround strategies for failing schools, and charters and choice. Part V describes how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used his administrative discretion to make No Child Left Behind more consistent with the objectives of Race to the Top. Part VI serves as a conclusion.


    The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that President Lyndon Johnson managed to push through Congress in 1965 was a historical breakthrough in a country that had traditionally considered education a state and local function. The initial appropriation of $1 billion in funding was doubled in 1966, and by the end of the decade was up to $3 billion. (1) Under Title I, the major provision of the law, funds were specifically to be appropriated to communities on the basis of economic need. The legislation read:

    In recognition of the special educational needs of children of low-income families and the impact that concentrations of low-income families have on the ability of local educational agencies to support adequate educational programs, the Congress hereby declares it to be the policy of the United States to provide financial assistance ... to local educational agencies serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families.... (2) In order to gain support of the Catholic lobby, the law guaranteed that poor children attending private and parochial schools would not be excluded from participating in the program. (3) In order to address potential constitutional problems arising under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and defuse anti-Catholic sentiment coming from Southern legislators, the law provided that all funds and programs would be administered by public schools. (4) Parochial school students were permitted to participate through the use of audio-visual devices, television and radio programs, and mobile teaching units. The precautions taken in ESEA represented a legislative enactment of the "child benefit theory" enunciated in the courts, which recognizes a legal distinction between aid provided to students and aid provided to schools or institutions. (5)

    The legislative strategy undertaken to accommodate the Establishment Clause was remarkable in light of the fact that Congress had previously made aid available to religious institutions under the GI Bill, the National Defense Education Act, the National School Lunch Act, and the Hill-Burton Hospital Reconstruction Act. (6) Notwithstanding these precautions, in 1985 the United States Supreme Court decided that public school teachers could not be sent into parochial school buildings to provide remedial instruction. (7) The ruling required public school districts to rent additional space so that instruction could be delivered on religiously neutral territory. The decision was eventually overruled in 1997, (8) on an appeal from the New York City school district, which had claimed that renting extra space was costing more than $14 million annually. (9)

    ESEA was part of a larger campaign to provide educational opportunities to poor and minority children that began with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (10) decision of 1954 that prohibited racial segregation in schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (11) required previously segregated school districts to submit desegregation plans or risk the loss of federal funding. In addition to providing extra aid for low-income students, President Johnson had hoped that the infusion of new federal money through ESEA would provide school districts with an added incentive to comply with the desegregation mandate. (12) The spending-incentive approach utilized by President Johnson was a shrewd tool through which officials at the federal level could affect policy in the states and localities. It would be applied by subsequent presidents, but none so effectively as President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

    Over time, research would prove that ESEA was falling very short of its goal to enhance the educational opportunities of poor children. In 1969 Martin and McClure completed a study on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund arguing that Title I monies were misused by school districts, finding that the districts used their appropriations as a form of general aid without spending it on low income children who were supposed to be its beneficiaries. (13) In a subsequent article, Jerome Murphy concluded that thirty percent of the administrators participating in Title I did not want to use funds exclusively for students from economically disadvantaged families. (14)

    In 1984, the first longitudinal study of the ESEA program showed that although there was some evidence that the students in the program accelerated at a faster pace than their peers, these gains were not sustained over time. (15) A year earlier, Secretary of Education Terrell Bell published A Nation at Risk (NAR). (16) The widely read report alerted the nation to the fact it was falling behind the rest of the developed world in academic achievement. (17) It also documented high rates of adult illiteracy, declining scores on college entrance examinations, and a rise in remedial programs in colleges, corporations, and the military. (18) It recommended the strengthening of high school graduation requirements; setting rigorous, measurable performance standards; the more effective use of time in school; a longer school day and school year; and improvements in the preparation, compensation, and accountability of teachers. (19) Education historians mark the report as the beginning of the standards movement, if not the entire modern school reform movement. (20)

    Despite the fact that the NAR report was commissioned by his own Secretary of Education, President Ronald Reagan did not show much interest in education. Believing that schooling is a state and local function, he had pledged to abolish the federal Department of Education created by President Jimmy Carter, but the shockwaves that the report sent through the country kept education very much in the public consciousness. (21) Within a year, thirty-five states had set new graduation requirements, twenty-two developed curriculum reforms, and twenty-nine set new policies regarding testing. (22)

    In 1989, President George H.W. Bush attended a meeting with the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Virginia in order to engage the state executives in a discussion on how to make education a national priority. It was an unusual move for a Republican president. More unusual was the enthusiasm with which the state officials embraced the offer of federal cooperation. (23) In response to Bush, the National Governor's Association agreed to create a National Education Goals Panel that would develop a national report card for assessing progress towards specific academic goals. (24) These goals were the foundation for "America 2000," a more comprehensive proposal put forward by President Bush that fell to defeat in a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1991. (25) In addition to proposing national goals, the Bush package included voluntary national testing. (26) Under its new...

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