Reading, Writing, and Regulations: A Survey of the Expanding Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education Policy

Since its inception, the education system in the United States has been structured in a very decentralized way. The federal government has historically played a limited role in public schools, leaving the majority of decisions to be made at the state and local level. The extent of federal involvement began to widen, however, in 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Until 1965, the federal government played a fairly limited role in the elementary and secondary education system in the United States. The US Constitution is noticeably silent on matters related to education, and therefore the provision of education is left as a power reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. As part of his Great Society programs, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 and set in motion an expansion of federal control that would continue into the next century.

The original legislation was relatively specific in its intent; it was meant to provide compensatory educational resources for students from low-income backgrounds. However, after numerous amendments and reauthorizations, the law grew to more than 20 times its original size, and the breadth of federal control it provided grew with it. Hundreds of specific federal programs were added over the years as federal funding of elementary and secondary education increased. Attached to these programs and funds came strings of federal control.

The most recent version of the ESEA is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which authorizes such a high level of federal oversight that the original legislation is hardly recognizable. Even now, federal influence continues to expand, fueled by such recent programs as Race to the Top and Common Core.

The purpose of this study is to provide a survey of how federal education legislation and associated regulations have changed over time and how those changes have affected schools and teachers at the local level. The study begins with the earliest federal legislation and moves to the most recent policies, with a special focus on the ESEA and its growth since 1965. The study also examines the development of the Department of Education, from its roots as a four-person department in the 1860s to its eventual climb to cabinet-level status in 1979. The study is supplemented with several empirical measures of federal growth, including federal education outlays, legislation length, and estimates of the burden imposed by federal regulations, which reflect a sizable expansion in federal involvement in elementary and secondary education over time.

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