Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Introduction:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

Introduction: Federal Role and the States

In retrospect, General Eisenhower's denunciation of federal involvement with education appeared ironic, because his administration as president saw the most rapid expansion of federal aid to education to date, and nearly every administration after his-both Republican and Democratic-expanded the federal role in education. It will be useful, therefore, to survey the proposals of each succeeding presidential administration, examining the political, social, and ideological context that shaped its approach to education and identifying the most important legislation that arose in each period. Of course, each new piece of education-related legislation had its origins in the work of particular members of Congress, and these members of Congress, in turn, derived many of their ideas from local constituents in states throughout the country. In fact, the best way to understand the development of education policy at the federal level is often to study local issues in the states and districts of the senators and representatives who push particular bills or who hold leadership roles on key congressional committees responsible for education. As policy analyst Christopher Cross has observed, "Federal policy often follows state/local action."

In some cases, an innovative state-level program can serve as the model for a new federal program. In other cases, states and localities have jointly advocated for federal action where a nationwide educational need was most efficiently addressed at the federal level. In still other cases, state-level resistance to federal action or a widespread lack of state-level innovations can serve as the catalyst for new federal mandates or federal grants. In yet other cases, the origins of a federal program might lie in cross-state or even non-state activities such as the work of interest groups, lobbies, community activists, philanthropic foundations, or research organizations whose explicit goal is to build on (or overcome obstacles to) various policy initiatives at the state level. It will not be possible in this short historical overview to scrutinize the state-level antecedents of every major piece of federal education legislation. It will, however, be possible to give a sense of the general evolution of a rapidly expanding federal role in schools since 1950. It will also be possible, besides following the activities of Congress and the presidency, to examine the involvement of the federal courts in public schools. One could well argue that the judicial branch has done even more than the executive or the legislative branches of the federal government to shape America's schools in the past fifty years. The courts, therefore, will not be marginalized in this analysis.


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