Federal Dateline

The End Is Near, and Major Change Is Brewing

by Bruce Hunter

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and the subsequent U.S. responses are likely to be the pivotal events for the early part of the 21st century. No one can foresee all the immediate and long-term consequences of the terrorist acts and our nation's response, but all aspects of life including education will be touched in both small and profound ways.


One of the first effects of the U.S. response to terrorism was felt when the process of funding federal programs began Oct. 4. In a move that took everyone by surprise, more than $4 billion in new money suddenly materialized. The House Appropriations Committee added these funds to the president's original request of $2.7 billion new dollars and put a record $7 billion into federal education spending. Weeks earlier this outcome would have been considered highly improbable. A Senate subcommittee roughly followed the House lead.

The new climate of bipartisanship and the unwillingness of members of Congress to disagree with the president have made a complex and contentious policy doable in three weeks without a single meeting of the House and Senate conferees on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The decision of President Bush to ask for an additional $60-75 billion to stimulate the economy probably clinched the decision to add a record amount to federal education programs.

Best of all, huge new appropriations were made to programs that deal with intractable problems and school improvement. For example, $1.7 billion was added to Title I grants to school districts, a boost of nearly 20 percent. Just over $1 billion was added to a consolidation of Eisenhower Professional Development and class size reduction, about a 50 percent increase, while $1.37 billion was added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a 22 percent hike.

ESEA, on the other hand, has gone badly from the perspective of AASA. Rather than improve current law the reauthorization has become a massive intrusion into critical state and local decisions. AASA cannot support ESEA unless the House and Senate conferees pull a rabbit out of the hat and dramatically improve the bill.

Some things can be lauded in the House and Senate bills. For example, the new rural provisions, mandatory funding for IDEA, transferability of up to 50 percent of ESEA funds between programs and the consolidation of several professional development and language development programs are improvements. The new reading initiative as a formula program to states is an improvement as is changing the 21st Century Learning Center funds into a formula grant to states. Changing the reading initiative and 21st Century funds into state grants will make such money available to many more school districts and will remove the advantage that school districts with experienced grant writers have had.

A Triple Threat

Three huge changes are possible in federal education policy. Any one of these would be significant, but taken together 2001 could be a landmark year. The three huge changes are:

* No. 1: The decision to make the federal government a major player in financing special education by making IDEA funding mandatory.

If IDEA funding becomes mandatory, then $180 billion in new dollars will flow to school districts over the next 10 years. Because special education is a mandatory service, state and local funds now cover all of the needed services. Mandatory funding means that school districts can redirect up to 55 percent of the new funds to cover other pressing local educational needs.

* No. 2: The decision to impose a single federal evaluation and accountability model on public schools everywhere.

In the past, evaluations applied only to federal programs. With the passage of HR 1, the Leave No Child Behind Act, federal law will dictate how schools are to be evaluated and held accountable. HR 1 requires testing every student in grades 3-8 every year in reading and math. Thirteen states already do that, so while the volume of testing is controversial, it is not a complete change in practice.

The biggest change in federal education policy since enactment of ESEA in 1965 is that a single federally established formula will be used to determine whether each school's performance is satisfactory or not based on students' test scores. Regardless of current state law, the federal formula for defining success and failure will determine the rating for every single public school.

The new ESEA will also establish a federal school rating system that will replace the system the 50 states have established. Federal law also will prescribe the consequences of failure according to the new federal formula.

Finally, a single federally developed test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, will be used as a quality control to ensure that states have rigorous standards and tests. Thus if a state scores high on its own tests but posts low scores on NAEP, the state will be penalized and forced to alter its tests.

These changes will slowly nationalize public education. This is counter to current policy which makes the states responsible for public education based on a 10th Amendment argument that things not specifically mentioned in the Constitution are the province of the states. In 1973 the Supreme Court decision in Rodriquez v. San Antonio Independent School District determined that public education was not a federal civil right and thus was left to the states.

Without declaring education a basic right, which would cause instant change in school finance, Congress has simply decided to drive curriculum through testing and the method of summarizing test results to define success and failure. This is the biggest single federal educational policy change since the passage of ESEA in 1965, and it has happened without dissent on Capitol Hill-even though many individuals and organizations have protested.

* No. 3: The decision to move control over federal education funds from the 50 state departments of education to the governors.

Although many governors directly appoint or significantly influence the naming of their chief state school officers, federal education funds have always flowed through the state departments of education. Two years ago the National Governors' Association proposed that the governors be given control over the allocation and purposes of federal dollars. Thus the current allocations for big programs such as Title I and IDEA and for small programs such as the Eisenhower Professional Development Program would be thrown out and left to the discretion of the governors.

AASA opposes this change as an unnecessary politicization of federal education funds, resulting in a likely loss of focus on schools enrolling concentrations of poor students.

Uncertain Outcomes

None of the major changes may come to pass, but I think at least one-the federal school evaluation system-will happen. I hope that IDEA is funded because we all have worked hard toward that end. Funding IDEA is only 50-50 now. If we lose it must be with such energy that everyone knows we will be back in the next session of Congress.

Moving control over federal education funds to the governors is also a 50-50 proposition at the moment. When this session ends education history may have been made and the concerns of those who opposed the original ESEA in 1965 may have been realized.

Bruce Hunter is AASA director of public policy. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org