Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Reagan:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Reagan Years: Education - National Concern, State Responsibility

The fact that state leaders seized the initiative for accountability reforms pleased officials in the new Reagan administration, which began in 1981 to shift a broad array of responsibilities back to the states. Promising to devolve financial and regulatory powers to state and local agencies whenever possible, Reagan persuaded the Congress to cut not only the amount of federal aid to education but also the extent of federal regulation in schools. Major cuts accompanied the Educational Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA) -part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (P.L. 97-35). Taking effect in June, 1982, the ECIA represented the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) -but it substantially altered the original law. It changed the name of Title I to "Chapter 1" and then collapsed twenty-nine smaller categorical programs into block grants to the states, which it called "Chapter 2." All told, the ECIA cut federal aid to schools by more than $1 billion, or 15 percent, in its first year (1982-1983) and specified even larger cuts for the future.

In June of 1981, Vice President George Bush and Secretary of Education Terrel Bell (who served as interim federal commissioner under Nixon and had since returned to his home state of Utah to serve as state commissioner of education) held a meeting with all fifty chief state school officers to discuss Reagan's domestic policy goals, which were, in a nutshell, to reduce the federal budget deficit, to attack inflation, to cut taxes, and to decentralize as well as deregulate a wide range of federal social welfare programs. These were the building blocks of the so-called New Federalism agenda, which traced its roots back to the Nixon administration. Reagan's top priority in education was to scale back federal categorical aid programs-not only to save money and reduce the deficit, but also to give "control" back to states and localities. At the same time, however, the president wanted to show that he was still "concerned" about education and would use his office to build support for public schools. As one scholar put it, "Understanding the distinction between education as a national concern but a state and local responsibility is important in understanding the president's contention that education is high on the national agenda but low in his budgetary priorities."


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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 Reagan administrations, see Education Policymakers 1981-1984 and 1985-1988.