Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Bush, GHW:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The George H.W. Bush Years: Grants, Standards, Opportunity

To move forward with the idea of developing national standards in the absence of new legislation, Secretary Alexander used federal discretionary grants to support this work by professional organizations. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) had responded, on its own accord, to the charge issued in A Nation at Risk by organizing a broad-based effort to write a set of standards. The standards were released in 1989 to general acclaim and thereafter were regularly cited as an example of how voluntary standards could inform teaching, texts, and tests. Using federal grants from the Department of Education, organizations in other disciplines produced voluntary national standards in their fields. These standards, which did not have the "drawback" of being required or produced directly by the federal government, were used by many states as the basis for their own standards.


Not all of these private efforts were successful. Early attempts in English and history were seen as inadequate or controversial and became the subject of considerable public debate. Overall, however, this pattern of developing standards demonstrated that the federal government could have an impact on states and the standards movement for relatively small amounts of money.


One impact of the growing use of standards was the expectation that all students should have access to high-quality education as measured by student results rather than by spending per student. Increasingly, the preferred way to compare the quality-or equality-of education provided across groups (for example, racial or income groups) was to test students in all groups with an instrument presumably based on the same academic curriculum, then compare scores from school to school and district to district within a state. This approach enables correlation of financial inputs with educational outcomes in order to tell whether different groups of students in different schools had access to "equal" educational opportunities. If test scores were equal, then, analysts assumed, educational opportunities must have been equal, too.


Beginning in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a series of lawsuits contending that educational opportunities were not equal began to find more success. Since 1989, plaintiffs have prevailed in eighteen of the twenty-nine major state financial equalization cases. Some of those plaintiff victories were in the states where the cases had failed only a couple of years earlier. In part, these results were due to a shift away from arguing that education was not equitable in funding to arguing that it was not adequate in opportunity. Equity claims attempted to use the equal protection clauses in most state constitutions to argue that disparities in spending were essentially unfair. In the adequacy claims, plaintiffs often contended that the opportunities needed for students to meet the standards were inadequate. Many state courts found the adequacy argument compelling and have endeavored to determine appropriate levels of school financing that will allow all students to achieve the mandated standards.


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