In a world where money talks, federal education funding tends to yell loudly into a speakerphone in the contentious playground of the education budget. Ever since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 introduced consistent federal funding for schools across the nation, education funding has faced a constant give-and-take between local practices and federal regulation. Federalism’s dynamics aren’t new, but in debates about education, the interplay between the two governments highlights the disproportionate influence the federal government exercises over education. While in monetary terms the government contributed 9 cents to every public dollar spent on education in 2010, in policy terms it defined hiring protocol, standardized testing practices, and rewarded successful schools while punishing underperforming districts.
Education’s third-rail status in American politics describes part of this discrepancy: politics converges with the federal bully pulpit to craft a potent mechanism for influencing education policy. But the federal government has also ambitiously set its sights on standardizing American education, a system often portrayed (fairly or not) as inconsistent in both method and result. For evidence of the trend towards standardization, look no further than last year’s buzz over the latest ESEA amendment, Race to the Top (RttT): that program dished out $4.35 billion, sending states scrambling to win grant money and extra funding in exchange for adhering to dozens of specific criteria. Somewhere between a budget that squeezes out funds for valuable programs and schools that resist change—for better or for worse—lurks the opportunity for a better system of education. But it takes digging through the budget to find it.
The first step to understanding the education budget is to identify the government’s obligations. In the 2010 fiscal year, the discretionary budget of the Department of Education (ED) was $46.7 billion. That’s a step down from 2009 and the Recovery Act’s $97.4 billion injection into the education budget, but it marks a consistent increase from 2008, when the ED spent $45 billion in its discretionary accounts.
Most of the federal budget consists of “mandatory spending” that is automatically appropriated every year. The ED’s budget, by contrast, is primarily funded by discretionary spending that Congress must decide to appropriate each year, leaving the program at the mercy of the revolving door of administrations and budgets. That can mean vertigo-inducing flip-flopping: in the 1960s, Johnson committed billions of dollars to a newer and more precise budget for the ED; in September, Michelle Bachmann threatened to axe the entire department if she enters office.
There are a handful of mandatory programs that include student loans, tax benefit and school lunch programs. Those programs have remained consistent for decades. But each year, with every new budget, scholarships, funding for teaching programs, preschool initiatives, special-needs grants—any and all could face the chopping block, be tossed aside for a newer program, or be rewarded with steep increases in funding.
A look back in history exposes the evolving—and growing—federal role in education across the country. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was the first bill to articulate a federal mandate for education programs across the nation. Designed as a compromise between general aid to schools and selective, grant-based spending, the act created a system of numbered “title grants” earmarked for particular purposes: financial assistance for schools with low-income students, school library resources, supplementary programs in the fine arts, and research and training programs. In 1965, $1.15 billion was committed through ESEA; in 2010, that amount reached $24 billion.
Since its creation in 1965, ESEA has seen a number of reauthorizations, during which Congress sits down to make changes, additions, or deletions to the law, usually in five-year intervals. The most recent reauthorization of the law was in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, which dramatically expanded the influence of the federal government over education by incorporating standardized performance-based evaluations into ESEA. The premise: schools that failed to meet certain performance criteria, measured by standardized testing and statistical benchmarks, would lose critical federal funding.
Federal expenditures per student vary by state, but in reality tend to be only a narrow margin of what states and local districts spend on student’s education. Roughly ninety cents of every dollar spent on students comes from the state or local level. In more precise terms, federal money might provide anything from $594 per student (Utah) to $1,144 per student (New York). None of that money subsidizes books, teaching, or facilities: each dollar is funneled to specialized programs, research, or training.
Got change for a billion?
With so little money (relatively) trickling into school budgets from the federal government, it may be tempting to dismiss those dollars that do get to students as chump change. But the reality is anything but. As Richard Halverson, an associate professor at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, “The entire education world is obsessed with [federal] intervention.”
It’s not just that federal intervention is particularly conspicuous. In the community-centered practices of education—where it is a teacher, and not a budget, that impacts a student, the greatest tension emerges when the top-heavy ED defines standards from above. But there are no teachers invited to craft the ED’s budget, and rarely will a teacher invite a government official to their classroom. Instead, the barrier between federal and local becomes insurmountable, and the debates about the true role of the ED, and the true character of American education, happens publicly: in the media and at town halls. As soon as some inadequacy is isolated in a school or district, the education world waits with baited breath for the inevitable response from the ED.
Correcting school practices and guiding educators towards new best practices has occupied both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Paris-based Programme for International Student Assessment ranks the United States 23rd in the world in science, 30th in math—well below Estonia, Macau, China, and the UK. Those results are not new, but in 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described them as “an absolute wake-up call.”
The way forward? “We have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education,” he said.
The mandate to improve education, vis-à-vis better test scores and rankings, prompted last year’s Race to the Top initiative. The $45 billion program pitted states against each other for extra funding based on dozens of criteria determined by the federal government. Rather than punish unsuccessful schools, the administration instead isolated states that had adopted best practices and rewarded them with additional funding. The carrot-and-stick approach drew in states that had not made reforms based on prior federal suggestions. Even states like New York—with a powerful teachers’ union that shuns federal interference—competed vigorously for funds from the federal government that the state eventually won.
In some respects, the money pumped into the budget by RttT was more symbolic than literal—a “period piece, a hair on the tail of the stimulus dog,” says Michael Kirst, professor emiretus of education and business administration at Stanford University and a former director in the ED.
But RttT’s symbolism signals an imperceptible shift in the federal government’s dealings with local schools. It is a policy, says Halverson, “situated in a distrust of local control.” Much of what RttT mandates for states starved for funding should be obvious reforms for any state serious about education: disentangling hiring procedures from bureaucracy, articulating a state reform agenda, implementing new data collection systems, intervening in lower-achieving schools. Each improvement earns the state a number of points; states with the most points won the round, depending on the persuasiveness of their application. But while RttT speaks volumes to the federal government’s priorities, it has little to say about individual states’ former agendas prior to its release.
Many states, and particularly many local communities, had already created methods of collecting and disseminating data, had already prodded local boards to relax hiring standards; a modern education system cannot function without many of these basic improvements. RttT is thus intervention disguised as self-help. Despite its best intentions, it displayed a myopic conceit when it implied that only the federal government understands the problems of education enough to change them, or that states have not already progressed and achieved many of the goals it describes.
We promise to pay you back
After New York received an award from RttT last spring, it promptly pledged to constructively handle its union conflicts and reform other aspects of its education programs. At the time, lawmakers and educators alike could do little but hope that the state would follow through on its pledge.
In the case of New York, incentives got the federal government about as much as it bargained for. Only 58% of teachers received tenure in 2011, compared to 97% the year before. Frustrated with an anemic legislature that dragged its feet on the latest budget, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s alternative budget proposal threatened to fire thousands of teachers, setting off a staring contest that the union narrowly conceded. New York is considering moving forward on performance-based pay, a move unions rejected the last time it was considered. And New York simultaneously demanded an additional $65 million in funding to replace schools it had closed for being underperforming, and to bolster schools that were slipping through the cracks.
The federal government has proven wary to increase its investment in education—in part because states have been wary to accept it. But the ED has instead combined limited increases in its budget with innovative approaches towards reform. By targeting spending towards precise incentives, the ED has transformed a budget one-tenth of the size of Medicare spending into a powerful force in the lives of America’s 49 million students. Design by Melissa Wong