Forecasting the Role of Cities in Education
Both cities and the federal government want great schools because they help create a strong workforce, boosting the economy at a local and national level – but the legal and fiscal powers of both levels of government are limited, and the policies of the new administration will likely complicate this dynamic even more.
In the first installment of this series, we looked at the basics of federalism and why it matters to cities. Part two of the series focused on how one policy – affordable housing assistance – has changed with the interpretation of federalism, and what that means for cities today. In this post, we examine federalism in the context of the American educational system.
The expectation that government should provide accessible, quality education for all has become deeply engrained in the American psyche. This responsibility, however, falls squarely on the shoulders of local governments. Quality education is most often a local responsibility, increasingly paid for at the state level, and managed by policies set at the national level. More specifically, states and local school districts have always made the critical decisions about education, from who should teach to what should be taught. The role of the federal government has been more limited; education policy has long flowed from the bottom up, with the federal government often expanding innovative local policies nationally. For these reasons, education presents an interesting look at federalism.
History of National Education Policy
While the role of the federal government in education has been muted, its level of involvement has steadily increased over the last sixty years. Federal interest in schools was triggered by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the fear that American education was falling behind on a global scale. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, delivering resources to poor urban and rural schools. Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s, the federal government worked to combat de facto segregation in public schools. The Department of Education became its own cabinet-level department in the Carter administration, only to see its budget severely reduced during Reagan’s tenure.
Similar to other policies, education policy followed the trend of heightened national importance during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, with the focus shifting back to the states during the Reagan administration. However, these federal trends coupled with changes at the state level to constrain public school budgets. Funding for education, which has typically been tied to property tax revenues, started to come under threat in 1978 when California was the first state to pass a limit on local tax collection. In 1979, state spending overtook local spending as the largest source of education funding, in effect limiting local autonomy.
Today, the federal government contributes between 8 and 10 percent of the public education budget. This amounts to $55 billion annually as of FY 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Much of this funding is discretionary, which means that Congress sets the amount annually through the appropriations process.
The most recent era of federalism, while hard to define, has largely focused on accountability and performance – doing more with less money. No policy area exemplifies this better than education, and no particular legislation better than the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Enacted at the outset of the George W. Bush administration, NCLB was built on the premise that standards should be equalized across states so that a school’s performance could be accurately measured. These priorities continued during the Obama administration with the Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that adopted common standards and broadened performance metrics.
In the Trump administration, the Department of Education will be led by Betsy DeVos. Secretary DeVos has been an advocate for school choice, meaning the privatization of education through school voucher programs and the expansion of charter schools. It is likely she will bring her views on education reform to the Department.
Because of recent reforms to federal education funding, local governments and school districts are under pressure to ensure schools are performing adequately or they risk losing critical funding to privatization. If Vice President Mike Pence’s tenure as Indiana governor is any indication, the Administration will likely move to expand charters and voucher programs. When the vice president was governor, Indiana shifted millions of dollars shifted away from public schools, and more children from middle-income families received vouchers to attend private schools.
Steps Cities Can Take Moving Forward
While education policy is administered at the local level, city governments often do not have direct oversight of their public schools. In some municipalities, school boards are jointly appointed by the mayor, city councilors, and/or the governor. In contrast, many school districts are independent special-purpose governments with leadership that is elected rather than appointed by city officials. In both of these scenarios, the policies of the new administration will likely add to the complexity of local-federal relationships in the education arena even more.
However, whether or not cities are directly responsible for their public schools, local governments can still lead (or expand) educational programs. Many cities offer programs during out-of-school times, either in the evenings or during the summer. These programs enrich the education experience, prepare students for specific careers, or help close the racial achievement gap.
Cities can also use data to improve their school systems. In the City of Nashville, for example, a partnership between Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and the city-funded afterschool program for middle school youth, the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA), has significantly improved students’ reading ability in just three months. This is exactly the type of partnership and focus students need, especially if they are struggling or falling behind. In another example of partnerships, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families teamed-up with MomsRising and School Readiness Consulting to produce Strong Start for Strong Cities, an early learning resource guide for mayors, councilmembers and other municipal leaders.
Finally, local elected officials can exercise leadership to support youth education beginning with pre-school, expand alternatives for students who struggle in traditional educational settings, increase high school graduation rates, and promote college access and completion.
To learn more about what NLC is doing in this policy arena – and make your voice heard at the federal level – join us at the Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., March 11-15.
About the author: Trevor Langan is the Research Associate for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.