Before passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, the United States Congress generally adhered to the principle that the federal government had no authority to undertake functions and duties not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Because the power to fund or regulate public education is not expressly stated in the Constitution, Congress relied on state and local governments to superintend the education of the citizenry. As an acknowledgement of this fact, many states, including North Carolina, included passages on public education in their laws and state constitutions.
Since the rise of federal activism after World War II, Congress has continued to enlarge the federal government’s financial and regulatory role in public education. By the late 1960s, the federal government had committed to redistributing federal revenues to supplement state education expenditures for special-needs children (IDEA), low-income students (Title I), child nutrition (National School Lunch Program), and vocational education (Perkins).
At no time before had the federal government’s role been larger, or more controversial, than the reauthorization of ESEA in 2002, also known as No Child Left Behind. This bipartisan law imposed new testing, reporting, and accountability requirements on states, which they begrudgingly implemented to keep federal K-12 education dollars flowing to state coffers.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and borrows from the No Child Left Behind blueprint. President Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015, and states will begin full implementation in 2017-18. In the meantime, federal education officials will establish specific rules, requirements, and guidance for states.
ESSA will continue to give the federal government a sizable presence in state accountability efforts. States must select specific types of accountability measures and goals as part of a broad accountability plan that will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. State education officials are also required to identify and initiate research-based interventions in the state’s lowest-performing schools.
Similar to No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to administer math and reading tests to students in grades 3-8 and in high school. States must report those results in the aggregate and by student racial and demographic subgroups. State education officials have limited flexibility to choose the tests and how they are administered.
While ESSA is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it preserves strong federal oversight of the nation’s public schools, which has come to include increasingly aggressive advocacy by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
The federal government’s growing financial and ideological encroachment into public education, by Republicans and Democrats alike, invites the kind of centralization of public schooling almost universally feared by the Founding Fathers and wisely resisted by subsequent generations of American citizens.
- While the vast majority of federal education funds are earmarked for special-needs children, low-income students, child nutrition, and vocational education, occasionally Congress will authorize discretionary, multiyear initiatives, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also called the “Stimulus”), the Education Jobs Fund, and Race to the Top.
- Current expense expenditures from federal funds totaled $1.45 billion and accounted for only 12 percent of North Carolina’s $12.6 billion public school operating budget for the 2014-15 school year. Virtually none of the state’s capital expenditures included federal funds and seldom do.
- During the 2015-16 school year, North Carolina school districts used federal funds to support 12,614 public school employees or 7.3 percent of all district school personnel in the state.
- Recognize that there is no such thing as “free money” from the federal government. Ever. No state has ever received federal education funding without strings attached.
- Acknowledge that federal funds do not appear our of thin air. Current and future taxpayers, not elected officials and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., bear the burden of repaying every dollar spent or borrowed by the federal government.
- Refuse to accept any federal grant that imposes an extraordinary burden on school administrators or interferes with the duties and responsibilities of classroom teachers. The first question that should be asked is, “Will these federal funds detract, in any way, from school supervision or classroom instruction?”
- If using federal funds, use them prudently. For example, school districts should reject invitations to use temporary federal grant dollars to fund permanent teaching positions.