Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Carter:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Carter Years: Department of Education

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) took effect in 1977, the year that President Jimmy Carter took office, and the new law quickly became part of a plan to reorganize the administrative aspects of the federal role in education. As part of his campaign, Carter had pledged to create a new cabinet-level department to oversee the rapidly growing panoply of federal aid programs. A broad coalition of organizations supported this effort, including the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the National Education Association (NEA), whose endorsement Carter had worked very hard to secure during his campaign. One of the few major organization to oppose the effort to create a new federal Department of Education was the NEA's chief rival, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In 1979, Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act by a narrow margin in both houses. It was unclear how a new department would affect the federal role in education, but it was obvious that the new department would confront an extraordinarily complex set of administrative issues. In the 1970s, the struggle to create a new department coincided with major controversies over special education, court-ordered busing, school finance reform, the effectiveness of federally funded programs, and, in a related vein, the issue of school "accountability" broadly construed. The challenge in the Carter years-years of continuing economic stagflation and cultural "malaise"-was to decide not only how to provide equal opportunities to diverse groups of students but also how to pay for all the new programs that federal courts had demanded and how to show that these programs "worked." By the late 1970s, the members of Congress felt growing pressure to show that financial inputs generated positive educational outputs in the public schools. In short, during the Carter administration, both program evaluation and student assessment moved to the very top of the federal education agenda.


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Footnotes: The PDF version of this essay contains extensive footnotes that include numerous citations and supplementary text. For ease of reading, the footnotes are omitted from this version.


To view snapshots of the political context for the Carter administration, see Education Policymakers 1977-1980.