Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: Reduce Federal Role
The Reagan administration used the block grant idea to reframe the federal role in education-or, rather, to back away from the idea that the federal government had any particular role to play in education at all. To ask "What specific educational goals did the Reagan administration seek to advance through block grants?" misses the point. Reagan did not believe the federal government should advance any specific goals in the area of education. Rather, according to the language of ECIA, he believed the federal aid should, in a fairly general way, "assist state and local education agencies to improve elementary and secondary education." To some, such a policy seemed indicative of Reagan's goal of cutting the federal budget for education while appearing to support education as such with state and local choices of programs (indeed, Reagan made no secret of his desire to abolish the U.S. Department of Education as a federal agency altogether). To others, such a policy seemed aimless at best and irresponsible at worst. As Milbrey McLaughlin of the RAND Corporation noted in a sharply critical report on the ECIA in 1982, "The 'Reagan Revolution' does not reform federal education policy in a way that will make the federal role more effective. Instead, ECIA . . . cedes responsibility for federal goals to the very agencies whose inability or unwillingness to address these goals prompted a federal education policy in the first place."
At issue was the extent to which fifteen years of federal aid under the ESEA had actually "built the capacity"-in terms of both ability and willingness-of state and local education agencies to run effective and equitable programs on their own. If federal aid had in fact built local capacity, then block grants could perhaps advance "federal goals" such as quality and excellence while, at the same time, decreasing federal oversight (and perhaps even cutting total federal aid). On the other hand, if categorical aid programs had not built state and local capacity and had not changed state and local priorities in the realm of education, then block grants would likely fail to advance "federal goals." It is worth noting that state education agencies-more than local agencies-had experienced a "capacity revolution" in the late 1960s and 1970s, but this revolution involved the use of federal resources to set up offices and programs that were funded entirely by the federal government. Consequently, this capacity revolution had not enabled state agencies to "do without" federal aid (or federal oversight). Rather, states relied heavily on federal aid as well as federal regulations to keep their educational operations going.