The tentative agreement on education spending reached by the Clinton administration and Congress on Wednesday was a clear demonstration of the extent to which both parties have come to believe in a more expansive federal role in education than its traditional job of targeting extra help to disadvantaged students.
For several weeks, one of the biggest issues hanging up the budget had been the fight over how school districts would be allowed to spend $1.4 billion in federal funding that the administration intended as part of its seven-year program to hire 100,000 teachers. President Clinton wanted to reserve the money specifically for hiring teachers and reducing class sizes in the earliest grades; Republican leaders in Congress wanted to grant districts more leeway in spending for teacher training and other expenses. But despite the partisan bickering, both positions--as well as the ultimate compromise, which would continue to target teacher hiring but would allow 25 percent of the money to go toward training--expand the government's long-standing role in education.
For more than three decades, the main justification for federal funding of locally controlled schools has been to promote an equal education for various groups of disadvantaged students. Congress passed education legislation to assist the poor in 1965, bilingual students in 1968, the disabled in 1975 and segregated minority students in 1983.
Although broader issues of school quality and student achievement have been federal concerns for a long time, until the 1990s they were usually expressed in bully-pulpit exhortations for schools to do better and periodic national tests to measure educational progress.
The Bush administration took tentative steps toward a broader role, funding the development of model standards in different academic subjects, but it has been Clinton and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley--former governors active on education in Arkansas and South Carolina, respectively--who have done the most to stretch the federal role.
They have pressed, usually with success, federal legislation to put computers in classrooms, create public charter schools, build schools and hire teachers.
John Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, described the quiet policy shift under Clinton as "trying to use federal money to bring about broader changes in school systems."
The shift has been rhetorical as well as substantive. At a news conference Tuesday defending Clinton's teacher hiring plan, Riley described the federal role in education in the broadest terms, as "providing support to states and local schools to provide quality education" and "establish[ing] national priorities." And although the hiring plan itself would favor school districts that enroll large numbers of impoverished students, that fact is rarely mentioned in the administration's broad statements about reducing class sizes across the nation.
In their own way, Republicans have been even more expansive in pressing to let districts decide how to spend their share of federal funding. Although framed as an issue of local control, such lump-sum expenditures to schools would in essence amount to shifting the government into a role states typically fill--supplementing property tax revenue raised at the local level with what is known as "general school aid."
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) this summer described "the appropriate federal role" as helping schools secure needed resources and letting them decide how to spend the money.
With both political parties competing to be seen as pro-education in next year's elections, efforts to expand the federal role seem likely to continue. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, proposed to expand the Education Department's responsibilities in September, he ran into criticism from conservatives. But that did not stop him from offering an expansive vision in his final major speech on education last week, saying that "the federal role in education is to foster excellence and challenge failure."