The shape of the federal role in education

No matter what President Trump and Secretary DeVos might claim, their power to influence K-12 education is limited — significant, but limited.


Just about everybody thinks they’re an expert on education; after all, just about everybody has been to school. But while many Americans are intimately familiar with their local schools, most have no idea how the larger public school system works. The complexities of who decides what in education, especially at the state and federal levels, are lost on many otherwise engaged citizens. Recent statements by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about the Common Core and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) have only muddied the waters even more.

Given the current level of interest in and concern about the administration’s plans for K-12 education, let’s clarify what the federal government can and cannot do.

Compared to local and state spending on K-12 education, the federal contribution is relatively small, comprising roughly 9% of actual dollars spent. Nonetheless, the federal role can be significant. The Department of Education acts (or, at least, acted in previous administrations) as a kind of trail guide for state and local leaders, pointing and pushing them in certain directions. At times, the department has given states a firm shove (e.g., the rigorous testing requirements of No Child Left Behind); at other times, it has used a much softer touch (as it is expected to do under ESSA, which reins in the secretary’s power). Either way, the department has always tried to influence state and local decision making.

However, there are many things that the department simply cannot influence. For example, contrary to recent Twitter-based innuendo about repealing the Common Core State Standards, the secretary can’t do that. The Common Core is not, nor was it ever, a federal law or regulation. Ergo, DeVos has no authority over the standards, and she cannot tell states whether or not to adopt or implement them. That decision lies solely with state leaders.

Stifling ESSA

DeVos also cannot repeal  ESSA, which was authorized by Congress and signed into law in December 2015 (replacing No Child Left Behind). What she can do — and did in March — is toss out the Obama-era regulations that would have guided state and local implementation of the law. From the moment those regulations were released, Republican members of Congress expressed their disapproval, accusing the department of overstepping its bounds. Once in office, DeVos wasted no time in drastically trimming the regulations, saying that the Obama administration had “gone outside of its established authority.”

Keep in mind, though, that ESSA amounted to a “fed lite” model to begin with, giving the department much less power than it had under NCLB. Undoing the existing regulations will only further diminish federal oversight of the law.

Word on the street is that a repeal of ESSA is highly unlikely. All the same, some members may try. Indeed, in January, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced H.R. 610, the Choices in Education Act of 2017. The bill would repeal ESSA and create a voucher program to distribute federal education dollars to states and districts. King and the bill’s cosponsors have no problem using federal funds to support local schools; they just don’t want the federal government to have any say over how those funds are used. The concept of limited — or better yet, zero — federal oversight is popular among many Republicans in Congress these days.

(So powerfully committed is Rep. King to getting the federal government out of local schooling that he also introduced a bill that would strip federal requirements to provide healthy school lunches — after all, what kind of misguided federal law would aim to encourage children to eat nutritious food?)

CTE action 

While a wholesale repeal of ESSA is unlikely, DeVos and her team certainly could have a significant effect on the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (commonly known as, simply, Perkins). Last renewed in 2006, policymakers have been chomping at the bit to redefine Perkins to better address workforce needs. The new House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a no-nonsense Republican with a passion for career and technical education, has already identified the reauthorization of Perkins as a priority for her committee. DeVos has mentioned CTE in several speeches as well, noting that the president favors creating multiple pathways through secondary and postsecondary education. Working together, DeVos and Foxx could make a powerful team, and since CTE has long been an area of education with bipartisan support, they could keep the ball moving. Whether it gets anywhere — or is completely deflated during the negotiation process — remains to be seen.

Charters, vouchers 

And then there is the question of charter schools and vouchers. School choice advocates may be excited to have powerful allies in the president and the secretary, but they shouldn’t expect a smooth road ahead. For one thing, school choice means very different things to different people, and many charter school supporters are wary of being lumped together with those who favor voucher programs, which tend to get very low ratings on public opinion polls. (In the long-running PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, a majority has never supported vouchers.)

As a philanthropist, DeVos donated heavily to the charter school movement. But Washington insiders predict that she is likely to promote school choice that features a kind of voucher model, based on the Florida tax credit scholarship program. This approach allows individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students. The scholarships allow students to choose among a list of private schools (and sometimes public schools outside the district) that have been approved by the scholarship organization. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states now have these programs in place. State policymakers tend to like them because they do not have to appropriate per-pupil education funding for students who receive scholarships. At the federal level, this means the government would not be stuck paying for an expensive school choice program, something both Trump and DeVos can crow about when pushing for a smaller federal role in education.

In spite of its limited powers, then, the Department of Education does have some latitude to make a significant effect on important parts of the K-12 landscape. But what makes the next four years so intriguing is that state and local leaders have such latitude too — actually much more of it. Given ESSA’s limited federal oversight and the Trump administration’s anti-Washington rhetoric, answering questions about who decides what in education has become much easier: On most issues, states and districts are now in control. Some will rise to the occasion and some will falter, but either way, their decisions will shape public education for years to come.


Citation: Ferguson, M. (2017). The shape of the federal role in education. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (8), 72-73.

MARIA FERGUSON ( is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

No comments yet. Add Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

WP_User Object ( [data] => stdClass Object ( [ID] => 38 [user_login] => mferguson [user_pass] => $P$Bt6b8ovk5n6fvkxENe1XL0el/rMwLm0 [user_nicename] => mferguson [user_email] => [user_url] => [user_registered] => 2018-08-24 09:36:22 [user_activation_key] => [user_status] => 0 [display_name] => Maria Ferguson [type] => wpuser ) [ID] => 38 [caps] => Array ( [author] => 1 ) [cap_key] => wp_capabilities [roles] => Array ( [0] => author ) [allcaps] => Array ( [upload_files] => 1 [edit_posts] => 1 [edit_published_posts] => 1 [publish_posts] => 1 [read] => 1 [level_2] => 1 [level_1] => 1 [level_0] => 1 [delete_posts] => 1 [delete_published_posts] => 1 [author] => 1 ) [filter] => [site_id:WP_User:private] => 1 ) 38 | 38