The Federal Exit from U.S. Public Education

Editor’s Note: As summer winds down, Research Access will be getting you ready to go “back to school” with two weeks of posts on the topic of education. Between August 20 and 31 we will be doing a series of posts that will have you ready to put on those new clothes, pack your lunch box and shine up that apple for the teacher.

In the 2000s, I wrote a column for a national education magazine about teachers who were classroom innovators. There were stark differences in “innovations,” depending on the state or school district I covered. The saddest story I heard: A teacher in a poor, rural district was paying out-of-pocket for basic classroom supplies not covered in the school budget.

Matt Simon

I’m not ignorant of economic differences within the US. But as a child of the “late baby boom,” I remember a time of much greater optimism about—and a more level playing field within—our national public education system.

The federal government first took a strong (and controversial) financial and philosophical oversight role in public education with the passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program, the Act provided public schools with $1 billion in funds for improvement and supplies, created special programs for poor school districts, and launched Head Start. Other “Great Society” K-12 education initiatives included a Teacher Corps to reach children in low-income areas, and passage of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968.

To supporters, these programs and Johnson’s higher education initiatives—helped by college support offered through the GI Bill—were generally successful. They substantially reduced racial segregation in public schools and made school funding more uniform at a time when there was widespread racial, gender, class, and geographical funding inequity. In the 1970s, the number of college-age youth who enrolled in college reached almost 50 percent. (In 1950 it was around 13 percent.)

In the 1980s, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, federal spending on education withered, partly through direct cuts, but, moreover, through the widespread use of block grants, which provided states with (usually reduced) funds to be spent at their own discretion. States could choose how to divvy up shrinking funds between health care, education, infrastructure, etc. School funding began to drop, and not uniformly. The state-by-state “education spending” map began gradually to resemble the same map from the pre-“Great Society” years.

This era, in effect, marked the end of federal financial and philosophical oversight of US education. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, statistics showed a rising divergence in the quality of K-12 education largely dependent upon differences in average family income within individual states and school districts.

The reductions continue today. In 2011, 21 states were considering cuts to K-12 education spending (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities). At least 34 states had already made such cuts since the economic downturn of 2007. The highlights of 2011 state education budget assaults: Texas lawmakers voted to cut public school funding by almost $4 billion; Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett proposed cutting $1 billion from public school funding; and the Florida legislature cut education spending by $540 per student per year—or 7.9 percent (the Huffington Post).

The presidential candidates will debate “what’s wrong” with education throughout the election season. Are teachers to blame? Should the federal government re-establish its direct oversight role? If yes, can Americans afford it? If so, which Americans? But with a split Congress, it’s hard to imagine any aggressive federal action to help our poorest schools.

For now, K-12 education will remain a state affair, and “back to school” will have connotations ranging from comfy to squalid.

About Matt Simon

Matt Simon worked in Washington, DC, for 23 years as a political writer, magazine editor, and producer, including eight years as producer of "Face-Off," a national daily debate program featuring US Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. He is founder of the Seattle-area Eastlake Digital Group, which specializes in social media marketing. Matt can be reached at

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