Equal Opportunity and the Federal Role in Education

A Response to the Conservative Attack

By Harvey Kantor

Participants in last June’s ‘Stand for Children,’ calling for renewed commitment to the well-being of all children.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of equalizing educational opportunity provided the rationale for an extraordinary number of federal initiatives designed to improve education for those long neglected by the educational system. Few of these initiatives mandated fundamental changes. More than ever before, however, they focused national attention and resources on the educational needs of economically disadvantaged white and minority children, made better education for low-income children and children of color a major national priority, and expanded the authority of the federal government to intervene to secure such improvement. Measured against the long history of racism and inequality in American education and of resistance to federal involvement in education, this represented an unprecedented accomplishment.1

Many of the programs initiated during these years persist today. Over the last two decades, however, the liberal consensus that supported this expansion of federal policy-making in education has come under sharp attack from conservative politicians as well as from a number of other right-wing groups. Hostile to the idea of using the state to combat economic and educational disadvantage, these conservative critics argue that federal intervention in education particularly federal programs like Title I/Chapter 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, bilingual education, and education for the handicapped has had few beneficial results. In their view, these programs have cost too much, have done little to improve substantially the achievement of low-income and minority children, and have trapped teachers and administrators in a web of bureaucratic regulations that make it impossible for them to perform their essential educational and social functions. Instead of continuing to expand federal involvement in education, they contend, policy makers should reduce the rate of growth in expenditures for federal education programs, eliminate federal programs targeted at poor children and children of color, and, above all, return the control of education to states and local school systems. 2

Chapter 1 has targeted money to schools with large numbers of low-income students.

Much of this conservative agenda remains unrealized. The Reagan administration succeeded in reducing federal expenditures on education, but failed in its efforts to consolidate the major categorical programs for low-income and other “special needs” students. More recently, chastened by the popular reaction to their attempt to shut down the government, the conservative majority in the last Congress gave up on its efforts to slash federal support for compensatory education and for education for the handicapped.

Yet, despite these defeats, the conservative attack on federal equity policies has profoundly altered the trajectory of federal policy-making in education. Not only has it succeeded in reducing the rate of growth of expenditures for federal programs. Just as important, it has succeeded in shifting the terms of debate away from an emphasis on using the state to expand resources and equalize opportunity for low-income children and children of color. Today, many liberals and moderates agree with conservatives that the policies introduced in the 1960s and first half of the 1970s led to an overconcern with low-income and other marginalized students, that federal regulations made excessive bureaucratic demands on local schools that eroded the quality of education, and that there is little the federal government can do to equalize educational opportunity for the least advantaged or to alter the distributional patterns of American society. 3

This skepticism about federal intervention in education is not entirely misplaced. As anyone familiar with the recent history of federal education policy knows, there are valid questions that need to be asked about how the federal government can best help equalize educational opportunities for those who have been denied them. But the conservative prescription does not provide many useful answers to these questions. On the contrary, though the conservative rhetoric about excessive federal spending and burdensome bureaucratic regulation of local schools has populist overtones and sounds very appealing, cutting spending, reducing federal regulations, and simply returning the control of federal programs to state and local educational agencies will do nothing but erode the opportunities that economically disadvantaged white, African American, and Latino groups have struggled to win over the last thirty years.

The Conservative Critique

The conservative critique of federal programs is based on four commonly held assumptions about federal involvement:

  • That federal involvement since 1960 constitutes an unprecedented break with past practices;
  • That federal spending on education for poor and minority children has been excessive;
  • That federal regulations have mired schools in a morass of bureaucratic red tape;
  • And that federal programs have produced little measurable improvement in educational achievement for “disadvantaged” children.

None of these assumptions is entirely unfounded, but they vastly oversimplify the recent history of federal education policy, overstate the impact of federal spending and the burden of new regulations on local school districts, and misunderstand the shortcomings of federal programs.

Break with Tradition?

Has federal intervention since 1960 undermined the tradition of state and local control? There is no question that federal intervention in elementary and secondary education was one of the most significant developments in the history of education in the 1960s. Prior to 1960, education was a relatively minor federal policy area, federal financial support for elementary and secondary education was minimal, and the federal role in state and local decision-making was modest. By contrast, since 1960, federal policy-making has intensified, federal funding has grown, and federal intervention in local decision-making has become more frequent. Taken together, all of this has expanded the federal government’s authority to define the nation’s educational priorities. Nevertheless, this has not marked as sharp a break with past practices as many suppose. Nor did it change substantially established channels of decision-making or reduce the operational independence of state and local education agencies to a significant degree. What did change was the purpose of federal intervention and the scope of the regulatory efforts to ensure these purposes were fulfilled.

To begin with, although education was not a very significant federal policy area prior to 1960, federal interest in education was hardly unprecedented. Nor was the idea of targeting federal programs for specific purposes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the federal government nurtured the expansion of education through land grants and by managing the formation of state constitutions. In the 20th century, federal programs were designed to support vocational education, to help public schools assimilate Indian children, to provide “impacted aid” to school districts burdened by untaxed military installations, and to improve the quality and quantity of education in math, science, and foreign languages. These programs established a federal interest in education. Indeed, although efforts to win Congressional approval for general financial aid to local school systems had been thwarted repeatedly since the late 19th century, by the early 1960s, periodic assertions of a federal interest in state-building and national “manpower” problems had set a precedent for further federal intervention in education. 4

The expansion of federal policy-making in the 1960s built on these earlier efforts. It would be wrong, however, to see these new initiatives simply as a continuation of past practices. Not only was the commitment to equity new. But in contrast to earlier federal efforts (such as improving the efficiency of the labor force or upgrading teacher training in math, science, and foreign languages) this commitment was not often part of the state or local agenda and was much less widely embraced by state and local educators. As a result, implementation of the new federal programs often encountered resistance from state and local officials and, in order to assure that federal money reached its intended recipients, often required much more extensive federal oversight of local practices than had earlier federal programs, which required minimal federal direction and guidance. 5

Carl Kaestle and Marshall Smith have observed that the scope of this oversight probably would have shocked educators and most of the public in 1950. 6 As Kaestle and Smith point out, however, despite this expansion of federal power, critics of federal intervention have greatly exaggerated the extent of federal influence that accompanied it. Since 1965, equal opportunity provided the rationale for federal initiatives (often reinforced by judicial decisions) in bilingual education, gender equity, and education for the handicapped, as well as for school desegregation and compensatory education. But states and localities have retained a great deal of flexibility in responding to these initiatives. Not only has school desegregation been difficult to implement because of local opposition and changing residential patterns, but several studies have shown that despite the flow of requirements that accompanied federal programs such as Title I, bilingual education, and education for the handicapped, the federal government’s capacity to control states and local school districts remained limited and that the implementation of these programs continued to be shaped by the ideology and structure of local control. 7

A good part of the reason for this is that in contrast to most other western democracies, the United States has, as David Cohen has put it, a “remarkably fragmented system of governance.” In most other industrialized nations, Cohen points out, the “relations between policy and practice are framed by systems of central power or by a small number of state or provincial governments.” In the United States, however, “the centers of organization and power are widely dispersed and weakly linked.” Consequently, the mobilization of federal authority in education occurred within what by world standards is an extraordinarily decentralized system of decision-making and did not reduce the autonomy of state and local education agencies. To the contrary, Cohen and others have argued that the growth of federal policy-making actually increased local responsibilities, since federal agencies were weak and had to rely on state and local authorities to design, implement, and operate the new federal programs. 8

This does not mean of course that the outpouring of federal legislation in the 1960s and the regulatory efforts that accompanied them has had no effect on the system of educational governance. Since 1960, the federal government’s authority to determine local priorities in certain areas of educational policy has increased. But there is little evidence that this has undermined state and local control or that it represents an unprecedented usurpation of local prerogatives in education. Despite the expansion of federal policy-making, states and local districts have retained considerable discretion in responding to federal policies, often at the expense of greater equity in the provision of educational services. Indeed, further analysis of the impact of federal spending and regulations on local education suggests that much of the variation in the quality of education available to different groups stems not from too much federal interference but from the federal government’s inability to assert more direct control over state and local practices.

Excessive Spending?

In 1995, the Department of Education allocated slightly more than $15 billion for elementary and secondary education, over half for compensatory education, bilingual education, education for the handicapped, and other programs designed to equalize educational opportunity for low-income children and children of color. Compared to 1960, when the federal government spent less than $500 million on elementary and secondary education, this represents a dramatic increase. 9 But a closer look at the figures does not support the contention that federal spending has been excessive or that it has done much to produce a profound change in the political economy of school finance.

Although the dollar amounts sound impressive, federal spending on education has never amounted to more than 2.5% of total federal budget outlays, and the federal share of total expenditures for elementary and secondary education is actually less now than it was in 1980. In fact, despite the growth in federal policy-making since 1960, federal spending has never made up more than 10% of local school budgets, peaking at 9.8% in 1980. This decreased to 6.1% in 1989, following the Reagan reductions, and since then has risen only slightly. Contrary to popular perceptions, the biggest change in school finance over the last 30 years has not been the increase in federal expenditures but the shift of responsibility for financing education to state governments, whose share of total education expenditures rose from 39% in 1965 to 50% in 1990 before declining slightly today. 10

In some states and localities, of course, the federal contribution accounts for a significant part of the budget. In some poor, rural school districts, for example, federal funds for compensatory education and other programs often account for nearly 20% of total school expenditures. In states that do not have their own compensatory education programs, this provides for the bulk of additional services for low-income students. But in most school districts, total federal spending comes to no more than 5-10% of the budget. This is still a sizable amount, especially in large school systems such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. But in the majority of school districts federal monies constitute such a small share of total spending that the federal government does not have much financial leverage on local practices, even if it should exercise its power of withholding aid (which it often threatens to do but seldom does). 11

Nor has the increase in federal aid been sufficient to offset the fiscal inequities that characterize the current system of public school finance. Title I/Chapter 1, by far the largest program of federal aid for low-income students, is only mildly redistributive, partly because it spreads funds to every state and to 90% of all school districts and partly because it has never been funded adequately. 12 In 1996, for example, federal expenditures for Title I/Chapter 1 were slightly more than $7 billion. 13 But several studies suggest that it would take nearly twice that much to equalize spending between rich and poor states. One RAND study by Iris Rotberg and James Harvey estimated, for example, that in 1993-94 it have would have taken at least $12 billion to bring per-pupil expenditures in all low-spending states up to the level in the median state and $35 billion to raise every state to the level of spending in Michigan, which spent more per pupil than three-quarters of the states. 14

Conservatives typically argue that increasing spending by such amounts is not likely to be very worthwhile. To support their argument, they usually refer to the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (1966), more commonly known as the Coleman Report, after its principal author, sociologist James Coleman. Recently, however, they have also relied on the research of Eric Hanushek, a University of Rochester economist, whose conclusions echo Coleman’s. 15 In a series of widely cited articles published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he analyzed a large number of studies that looked at the connection between school resources and student achievement (what economists of education call production functions). Based on this analysis, he concluded that even though there are large differences in teacher quality, there is little evidence that disparities in expenditures are consistently related to variations in educational outcomes, at least within the current organizational structure of schools. Consequently, he argues, school improvement policies should not be formulated on the basis of expenditures. 16

More fine-grained research that looks not at aggregate expenditures but at how money is spent in particular contexts disputes this claim. 17 Most notable is Ronald Ferguson’s recent research linking teacher quality with student achievement and school expenditures with teacher quality. Still, Hanushek’s argument is not totally unfounded. We all know some well-funded schools that do poorly and some less well-funded schools where students excel, though this hardly means that the level of funding is irrelevant or that attempts to increase funding would be wasteful. As Ferguson’s research suggests, it means only that additional funds be well spent. Indeed, given what R.W. Connell calls the “educationally relevant inequalities of resources around schools,” the issue is not that money makes no difference, only that to make a significant difference it must be spent on those administrative and classroom practices and processes that “translate school resources such as teachers and instructional materials into effective teaching and learning.” 18

Burdensome Regulations?

Are federal regulations too burdensome? There is no question that as the number of federal programs has increased and new mandates have been passed, the regulatory responsibilities of the federal government have grown. The passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 have all entailed an increase in federal monitoring and oversight. In addition, the passage and enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in federally assisted programs, Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments barring discrimination on the basis of sex, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of handicap, and Supreme Court decisions such as Lau v. Nichols, which guaranteed the educational rights of limited-English-speaking students, all expanded the regulatory obligations of the federal government.

Overzealous enforcement of these regulations has at times threatened to make a “mockery” of them, as their critics point out. 19 Yet, except for school desegregation, they have not interfered substantially with the regular activities of the schools. Nor have they been overly burdensome to most school districts. Conservative rhetoric about too much paperwork and red tape to the contrary, over time, local educators have accommodated themselves to these programs and learned to live with the mandates and regulations that have come with them. In addition, many educators who once complained loudly about excessive bureaucratic regulation now agree that the federal presence has been necessary to address inequities long ignored by states and local school districts and to insure that the purposes of the federal legislation have been carried out. 20

A case in point is the history of Title I/Chapter 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965. Little thought was initially given to how it might be implemented. Although some questioned whether local districts would follow the intent of the legislation, most assumed that the program would be self-executing. Yet implementation fell well short of these expectations. Local districts with little commitment to educating low-income children used the new funds for a variety of purposes, many of which had little to do with equalizing opportunity. In some cases, they even used funds to perpetuate the inequities they were intended to address, as in the Louisiana parish that used federal funds to build segregated swimming pools. 21 In response to these abuses and to pressure from civil rights groups, federal officials stepped up their oversight of local programs, and they increased audits of local districts. This resulted in much more elaborate and specific guidelines and regulations governing the use of federal funds. But it reduced abuses in local practices. Although many eligible children were still unable to participate in the program because of inadequate funding, by the early 1980s funds were reaching the most needy students and the number of those participating who were neither low-income nor low-achievers had been substantially reduced. 22

This regulatory effort was resisted initially by many state and local school officials. Among other things, they argued that federal regulations limited their flexibility to meet pressing local needs. But most studies of the implementation of Title I indicate that by the early 1980s local districts had worked out agreements with federal officials that gave them more flexibility in administering the program but preserved the intent of the program to deliver additional services to low-income students. Indeed, one of the chief ironies in the recent history of federal policy is that just at the moment that Reagan and other conservatives were bewailing the effects of government regulation on the schools and proposing to reduce federal involvement, most school officials had become accustomed to the federal presence. They fought against Reagan’s efforts to consolidate the major categorical programs for low-income, limited English-speaking, and handicapped children, and told researchers that federal money provided services to low-income and other needy students that states and localities would not have provided on their own. 23

Some researchers have praised this accommodation as an example of creative federalism. The reasons for it are not necessarily ones that should be applauded, however. In most places, it did not come about because local districts had fully embraced the federal commitment to equity or substantially altered their regular practices. On the contrary, local districts became less resistant to Title I/Chapter 1 because they succeeded in marginalizing it. They created a separate administrative structure to administer it, hired a separate staff to teach in it, and pulled students out of their regular classes to receive its services. As a result, even though people in local districts came to accept accountability to federal guidelines as the condition for receiving federal funds, the program remained peripheral to the main workings of the school and had a difficult time building a base of support for further program development if federal dollars should ever be withdrawn. 24

There are, of course, valid complaints about federal regulation, not just in Title I but also in the federal bilingual education program and in the program for handicapped education. Many school districts have focused most of their energy simply on complying with federal guidelines. Sometimes this has come at the expense of program quality. 25 One observer commented, for example, that he knew of a lot of Title I programs that were in compliance with federal regulations yet were bad programs. Others have made the same observation about bilingual education and P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. 26 But it is not self-evident that these problems have resulted principally from overzealous federal regulation or that they can be resolved simply by returning the control of education to the states and localities, as conservatives as well as many liberals argue they can.

First, neither Title I/Chapter 1 nor P. L. 94-142 prescribe specific curriculum or particular pedagogical practices. In both programs, decisions about the conduct of the programs, the content of the curriculum, and pedagogy are left up to local districts. If instruction in them has been uninspired, it is not therefore just because of excessive federal regulation but because of the presence or absence of other factors that inhibit change and encourage experimentation. Of these, the most often cited are lack of local knowledge about alternative practices and the local district stance toward flexibility and innovation. 27 But equally important are deeply embedded assumptions about economically disadvantaged students and the kinds of practices appropriate for them, particularly that they suffer from cultural deprivation and that what will help them most is continual drill and repetition of basic skills rather than the opportunity to engage in more challenging conceptual tasks. 28

Second, although compliance concerns may have inhibited efforts to improve the quality of instruction, recent experience with the block grant created under Chapter 2 of the Educational Consolidation and Improvement Act suggests that reducing federal involvement and simply returning control to states and localities is more likely to exacerbate inequities in resources than reduce them. The block grant, passed in 1981, consolidated 28 categorical programs (including the Emergency School Aid Act [ESAA] which provided support for school desegregation) and shifted responsibility for making decisions about how to allocate resources to the states. The result has been a pronounced decrease in attention to equity concerns. In their fifty state analysis of state Chapter 2 allocation formulas, Martin Orland and Staffan Tillander found that 80% of the states distributed the largest share of Chapter 2 formula funds without reference to any criteria of need, while only two states distributed over half of their block grant funds to local districts according to high needs factors. Not surprisingly, the biggest losers were urban districts that received large grants from ESAA funds prior to consolidation. 29

Political scientists have suggested two reasons for this lack of commitment to equity at the state and local level. One is that groups representing the poor and other needy students, with the notable exception of advocacy groups for handicapped children, are much weaker politically in states and localities than they are at the national level; thus, in most states and localities, it is more difficult for them to put equity concerns on the political agenda. 30 The other reason is that states and localities must keep tax rates low in order to attract investment and to reduce the flight of middle-class residents who would rather move than pay higher taxes for services that do not directly benefit them. Thus, states and localities are not only under less political pressure than the federal government to provide additional funding to improve education for poor children, they have less fiscal capacity to respond to their educational needs as well. 31

None of this means that states and localities have no role to play in improving education for low-income children. Because schools are organized locally, reform must be owned by states and local school districts if it is to be successful. Moreover, a generation of implementation studies has confirmed that reforms imposed from above, while increasing access to services, have not done much to alter local instructional practices. But the history of the last thirty years suggests that absent federal pressure, the commitment of states and localities to equalizing educational opportunity remains uncertain. Although federal equity policies may need to be reformed, simply reducing or ending federal involvement will, as Lorraine McDonnell and Milbrey McLaughlin have put it, do nothing but “harm a largely powerless constituency.” 32

Ineffective Programs?

Are federal programs ineffective? There is no single answer to this question. Conservatives argue that federal programs should be eliminated, or at least cut back drastically, because they have had no sustaining effects on student achievement. In a recent article on Chapter 1, for example, Brian Jendryka of the Heritage Foundation wrote that “If Chapter 1 were a business, it would be in Chapter 11.” Over the past 30 years, he argues, Title I/Chapter 1 has spent $135 billion (in 1992-1993 dollars) but has done little to boost the academic performance of low-income children. To support his argument, he pointed to several studies which found not only that Chapter 1 participants failed to catch up with their middle-class peers but that the achievement level of the average Chapter 1 student in both math and reading actually declined while they were in the program. 33

Students taking part in the federal lunch program.

Most liberals contest these claims. They acknowledge that the results of early evaluations on the effects of federal programs like Title I and Head Start were disappointing, but they attribute these results to poor program implementation or inadequate research design. Once implementation problems were resolved and outcome measures were designed better, they say, evaluation results have been more positive. Moreover, they argue, these programs have had a variety of positive effects beyond their influence on school achievement. Edward Zigler, former Director of the Office of Child Development, has argued, for example, that whatever its effects on achievement, Head Start has improved the nutrition and health of thousands of low-income children. 34 Likewise, Mary Jean LeTendre, Director of the Office of Compensatory Education, has argued that while Chapter 1 may have failed to produce great gains in academic skills, it has nonetheless been a success in other ways, helping to make kindergarten universal, highlighting the importance of parent involvement, and bringing national attention to the obstacles facing low-income and other needy students. 35

While this argument is persuasive, it is difficult to dispute that these programs have failed to produce the kinds of gains in achievement that proponents initially anticipated. Later evaluations of Title I/Chapter 1, for example, have documented gains in achievement, especially when funds have been sufficiently concentrated. But even these more optimistic studies generally conclude that the gains are modest, are confined to the early grades, and generally “wash-out” in junior and senior high school. 36 The most recent evaluations of Head Start have also documented short-term gains in cognitive achievement as well as long-term gains in special education placement and progress through the grades. Some also indicate gains for model preschool programs (not Head Start) on measures of life success such as teenage pregnancy and delinquency. But they too conclude that the gains in intellectual performance disappear within a few years, that the effects on retention and placement are modest, and that, despite improvement compared to other similar students, program participants continue to lag well behind middle-class students on measures of life success. 37 Indeed, if recent evaluations have reached more positive conclusions than those done 25 years ago, it is not just because the programs may have become somewhat more successful. Rather, as Christopher Jencks has observed, it is because our criteria for success have become much more modest than they were in 1965, when policymakers hoped that these programs would not just improve the academic performance of children from low-income families but actually equalize differences in achievement between economically disadvantaged students and those who were better off. 38

The more interesting and much more important question is why these programs have not been more effective in raising achievement. Defenders of federal programs offer several explanations. One is that they were often poorly implemented, especially when they were first started. In addition, it is argued, there is great variation in the quality of the programs because they are locally designed and run. As Milbrey McLaughlin has put it, there is no single Title I/Chapter 1 program; rather, there are 30,000 individual Title I/Chapter 1 programs, some good ones, some bad ones, and lots of mediocre ones. 39 Likewise, Edward Zigler has pointed to variation in the quality of local programs as one of Head Start’s chief problems. Finally, defenders of these programs also point out that they have not been funded sufficiently to provide enough additional services to make a difference in school achievement. Title I/Chapter 1, for example, spends about $1,100 per pupil, but this only provides about an hour and a half of additional instruction in math and an hour and a half of additional instruction in reading each week, while Head Start only has enough funding to run for half a day, must limit enrollment for each participant to one year, and still cannot enroll all those who are eligible. 40

Students in a bilingual program.

All of these explanations make sense, but they tell only part of the story. Two other explanations are equally, if not more, compelling. First, studies of these programs point out that most of them simply do not do much that is different from what is already going on in the regular classroom; they just provide more of it, usually in smaller size groups. The majority of Title I/ Chapter 1 programs focus almost exclusively on providing additional instruction in reading and math, most of which is generally the same kind of desultory, decontextualized skill training that goes on in many regular classrooms. Qualitative studies suggest that much of the instruction in Head Start falls into the same pattern. Local administrators often argue that this is necessary because students need so much work in basic skills and because their staff is not well enough trained to do anything else. Whatever the reason, however, giving students the same kinds of instruction that they failed at or rebelled against in the first place is unlikely to do much to improve their performance, at least not in more than a transitory way. 41

Many researchers argue that these instructional problems are compounded by the way compensatory services have been delivered. The primary model for instruction in Title I/Chapter 1, for example, has been to pull students out of the regular classroom for supplemental instruction. Among other things, it was believed, this arrangement was the best way to address the needs of low-income students since it allowed them to concentrate on learning basic skills in smaller classes without having to compete with their more advantaged classmates. Sometimes this has worked, but more often, according to many observers, pull-outs have had negative effects. They cause Title I/Chapter 1 students to lose time in class, fragment their educational experience, and, perhaps most importantly, lower expectations for achievement by treating them as a separate group. Instead of separating them from other students, it is argued, Title I/Chapter 1 should place greater reliance on in-class programs or other mechanisms that reduce fragmentation, end the isolation of Chapter 1 students from their classmates, and increase expectations for achievement of the students in them. 42

At first glance, this argument makes sense. As a general rule, removing students from the classroom is more likely to stigmatize them and lead to lowered expectations for achievement than instructional strategies that deliver services as part of the regular classroom routine. On closer inspection, however, there does not appear to be any readily apparent reason to prefer one organizational model of service delivery (pull-out, in-class, or any other) over another, since, as Erwin Flaxman and his colleagues have put it, they all “can be effective or ineffective in different settings.” 43 In fact, there is little evidence that instructional quality and program features, such as how students are grouped or whether they are taught by aides or by the regular teacher, are related in any systematic way. Rather, recent research suggests that program quality has less to do with the particular model of instructional delivery that is used than with the overall quality of the district and the school that students attend. 44

Indeed, probably the biggest reason why Title I/Chapter 1, Head Start, and other federal programs have not done more to boost achievement is that the children they serve go to low-quality schools. According to a recent study by Valerie Lee and her colleague Susannah Loeb, for example, one reason Head Start gains wash-out once students enter school is that Head Start students go to schools with lower average achievement, poorer student-teacher relations, and a worse academic climate than their more advantaged peers. Consequently, whatever gains they might have made in preschool are not reinforced by their subsequent educational experiences. 45 Likewise, Title I/Chapter 1 students are more likely than other students to go to schools with high drop-out rates, rigid disciplinary practices, uninspiring curriculum, low expectations for achievement, and inexperienced teachers. 46 No matter how good the program might be, its benefits will be difficult to sustain in such an environment.

What Should Be Done?

What should the federal government do? There is not much the federal government can do directly to make these schools better and reduce the disparities in achievement between low-income children and their more advantaged peers. The federal programs begun in the 1960s and 1970s, together with the civil rights movement, have gone a long way toward expanding educational services for economically disadvantaged students. But the experience of the last three decades has also taught us to temper our expectations about the potential effects of large-scale federal interventions on classroom learning. Still, if the federal government cannot mandate change in what happens in classrooms, ending federal involvement in the name of local control will only make matters worse. Equalizing educational opportunity for those denied it not only requires local initiatives but federal policies to reallocate resources and protect civil rights, provide access to the kinds of practices that make a difference in achievement, and address more comprehensive issues, including the distribution of economic opportunity, that cannot be dealt with effectively at the local level.

Given the educational effects of unequal community wealth and family income, it is difficult to see how the disparities in achievement between rich and poor children can be overcome without spending more money to equalize educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged students. For reasons outlined above, however, states and localities have neither the fiscal capacity nor the political incentive to increase spending to aid poor children. Consequently, the federal government must provide additional resources to improve their chances for educational success. In particular, federal funding is needed to provide additional services in major urban centers and rural areas that have large concentrations of low-income and other “special needs” students.

Allocating federal resources to schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students is especially important for three reasons. The first is that high concentrations of poverty are associated with lower rates of school achievement, not just for economically disadvantaged students but for nonpoor students as well. Second, because schooling is tied to local housing markets that are segregated by race and income, those students with the greatest needs yet the fewest advantages, particularly low-income students of color, are more likely than white middle-class students to go to schools with high concentrations of poverty. Finally, even though districts with large numbers of low-income students often tax themselves hard, they generally have fewer resources than more advantaged districts. This is either because they have inadequate tax bases or because they have a disproportionately high need for noneducational services such as police and fire protection or health and welfare services that compete with education for funds out of the local property tax. 47

Simply pouring money into these high poverty schools will not, of course, automatically make them better. Conservatives are right about that. At a minimum, however, additional funding would make it possible to purchase the kinds of services that are educationally valuable but that many schools with large numbers of poor students do not now provide because they cannot afford them. A large body of research suggests that, among other things, access to kindergarten, student support services, small classes, experienced teachers, and a broad and demanding curriculum all make a difference in achievement. But even though these are routinely available in wealthy districts that serve more advantaged students, they are often unavailable in high-poverty schools because they are located in property-poor districts that do not have sufficient funds to provide them. 48

Finding political support to increase spending for such policies is no easy task, although it may not be quite as difficult as it initially appears. Because of Reagan’s tax reforms, which indexed tax brackets, new spending for education and other domestic programs can no longer be financed out of inflation but requires an increase in taxes, which is anathema in the current political climate. 49 In addition, in 1994, before the Republican victory in the fall elections, Congress turned down a proposal to concentrate a greater proportion of Title I funds on high poverty schools. Yet, despite popular discontent with the federal tax burden and congressional opposition to federal programs targeted at the poor and minorities, opinion polls show that spending for compensatory programs in education retains considerable popular support. This does not mean that most Americans would support a tax increase to provide more resources for education. But it suggests that, contrary to what most politicians and pundits commonly suppose, it would be possible to devote a greater share of federal tax dollars to education without provoking a terrible public outcry. 50

Winning popular approval for more spending and convincing Congress to allocate resources to high-poverty schools is not the only problem, however. As the history of Title I/Chapter 1 suggests, an equally important question is how to use federal funds to stimulate reform. Concerned that schools were insensitive to the needs of low-income children, the advocates of Title I initially hoped that, in addition to providing more services, federal funds might help change how schools operated. Things did not out work that way, however. As we have seen, not only has Title 1/Chapter 1 instruction been rather perfunctory, it has not done much to alter general educational practices either. For the most part, it has remained on the margins where it has had little impact on the regular workings of the school.

In 1988, when Congress re-authorized Chapter 1, it tried to address this problem by making four changes in the law. The most important of these changes eased the targeting provisions in the law so that schools with high proportions of low-income students could use federal funds as part of a schoolwide approach to educational improvement. But the results so far have been mixed. By 1992, 40% of all districts with more than 25,000 students had at least one schoolwide project. Some of these schools used the increased flexibility that these projects provided to introduce progressive changes such as more heterogeneous grouping and a greater emphasis on accelerated learning and teaching higher-order thinking. But the majority did not substantially alter their main patterns of teaching and learning; instead, they introduced vital but traditional reforms such as reducing class size, increasing support services, and offering more parent education. 51

No Simple Solution

There is no simple solution to this problem. It is much more difficult for the government to stimulate innovation than to mandate access to services or to impose sanctions for fiscal mismanagment, though policy analysts have suggested three things that might help. One is to tie federal funding to the development of school improvement plans that not only stipulate high minimum levels of performance for student achievement but that specify the changes that will be implemented to accomplish that goal. The second is to use federal resources to build the organizational capacity of schools so that they can change their practices. Among other things, this includes technical assistance for teacher enrichment and support for parent education and involvement. The third thing is to monitor progress toward these goals, not chiefly with an eye toward sanctioning schools that fail to reach them, but for the purpose of encouraging further change and experimentation when and where it is needed. 52

I am not very optimistic that this will alter regular school practices in a dramatic way. In the past, local educators have generally treated mandates for things like school improvement plans and performance assessments as bureaucratic regulations to be complied with rather than as a stimulus to reform. Building the capacity of schools to change makes much more sense, though this must include more than the typical kinds of technical assistance and teacher training that most policy analysts have in mind. To be effective, it must also involve working with teachers to deepen their understanding of students from different classes and races, providing extra staff so that teachers and other school people have the time to design an intellectually challenging curriculum that will involve students in learning, and empowering parents not just so they can help with homework but so they can act with political and economic understanding to help reform the schools. 53

In the end, however, whatever the federal government might do to reform education can hardly be as effective as what it might do to address “the conditions of schooling and society directly.” 54 This is an old refrain but it cannot be repeated enough. As important as any changes to the educational system itself, improving the quality and equality of education available to economically disadvantaged children and other marginalized students requires more affordable housing, improved health services and child care, and a public commitment to the eradication of poverty, economic inequality, and racial discrimination. Absent policies that address these issues, no matter what the federal government does specifically about the schools, it will be difficult to improve the quality of education in high-poverty schools and to reduce the gap in achievement between rich and poor children. This is not because poor children are culturally deprived or lack educational aspirations but because poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination in the labor market “influence students’ sense of whether schools provide access to greater opportunity and consequently whether serious effort” will be rewarded. 55

None of this means, as Robert Kuttner has put it, that we should rely solely “on the power of the federal government to address national problems programmatically.” 56 Recent history has not only taught us the limits of federal policy but also to be suspicious of excessive concentrations of federal power. But if there are good reasons to question the federal government’s capacity to solve social problems as well as to worry about the potential abuses of federal authority, the solution is not simply to discredit state action. This may please conservatives, but it will not do very much to make schools more equal or to improve the life chances of low-income and other marginalized students. Rather, we must use federal policy to equip schools in poor communities with the kinds of economic and social resources they need to change their own circumstances. Otherwise, the obstacles facing low-income students will only get larger and the gap between rich and poor children will continue to grow.


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1.For an overview of the history of these programs, see Harold and Pamela Silver, An Educational War on Poverty: American and British Policy-Making, 1960-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

2. See, for example, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Diane Ravitch, Education Reform 1994-1995 (Indianapolis: Hudson Institute, 1995), part IV; and Nathan Glazer, The Limits of Social Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)

3. For an overview of the conservative attack on government equal opportunity policies, see Michael Apple, “Redefining Equality: Authoritarian Populism and the Conservative Restoration,” Teachers College Record 90 (Winter 1988): 167-184.

4. On this point, see Hugh Davis Graham, The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. xviii-xix; Sidney Tiedt, The Role of the Federal Government in Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); and, especially, Carl Kaestle and Michael Smith, “The Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education, 1940-1980,” Harvard Educational Review 52 (November 1982): 384-408.

5. Henry Levin, “Federal Grants and Educational Equity,” Harvard Educational Review 52 (November 1982): 444-459; Paul Peterson, “Background Paper,” in Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Federal and Elementary and Secondary Education Policy, Making the Grade (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1983), pp. 69, 80; and Kaestle and Smith, “Federal Role,” p. 402.

6. Kaestle and Smith, “Federal Role,” p. 389.

7. Richard F. Elmore and Susan Fuhrman, “The National Interest and the Federal Role in Education,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 20 (Summer 1990): 149-163; David Cohen, “Governance and Instruction: The Promise of Decentralization and Choice,” in William H. Clune and John F. Witte, eds., Choice and Control in American Education Volume 1: The Theory of Choice and Control in Education (London: Falmer, 1990), pp. 337-386; Milbrey McLaughlin, “Learning from Experience: Lessons from Policy Implementation,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 9 (Summer 1979): 171-178.

8. David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations Between Governance and Instruction,” in Gerald Grant, ed., Review of Research in Education, volume 18 (Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association, 1992), pp. 3-49.

9. On federal spending, see National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1995 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1995), p. 380; National Center for Education Statistics, Federal Support for Education, F

Harvey Kantor is Professor of Education at the University of Utah.