How Biden’s Request for More Education Funding Would Shift More Power to the Federal Government

Yves here. I would not be so concerned about the prospect of more Federal control of primary and secondary school education if they had proven to be any good at it. And given our society’s increasing orientation toward treating education as vocational training as opposed to producing competent citizens who can function well at a wide range of cognitive tasks and help school the next generation, you would think they’d sponsor a technical track to help non-college bound students get specific workplace skills and internships with potential employers. But no, we’re likely to get more half-baked testing schemes.

But having said that, there are some outlier bad ideas that do deserve to be quashed.  I recently met a high school chemistry teacher in California and overheard one of her classes on Zoom. She teaches in a magnet school in a poor-ish area of the state. I was shocked at how basic the class was (I was a math and science nerd in high school) and said I noticed how different her chemistry course was from the one I’d taken many years ago. She understood immediately what I was hinting at.

This teacher said the reason high school chemistry had been so dumbed down from the level she and I had gotten (and remember this woman is a generation younger than me) is that many students in her class had deficient reading and math skills. And that was because no student in California could be held back a grade if the parents said no.

By Nicholas Tampio, Professor of Political Science, Fordham University. Originally published at The Conversation

The president has called on Congress to make a “historic investment” in the Title I grant program. The program provides financial assistance to school districts that have high numbers or percentages of students from low-income families. The Biden administration wants US$36.5 billion for the program, an increase of $20 billion from the 2021 enacted level.

As a political scientist who examines education policy, I believe this larger influx of cash would give the president more power to shape the structure of American education.

I also believe it could make it harder for states to push back against the federal government when it comes to such matters as standardized testing.

History shows how a larger federal role is part of an ongoing trend. Since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government has attached conditions that states and districts must meet to get federal education funds. Based on these conditions, if Biden succeeds in his plan to increase federal spending by 41% in fiscal 2022, then the federal government will have even more control over school spending.

From ‘Cradle to College’

In 2009, the Obama administration launched a competitive grant program, Race to the Top, that financially rewarded states that invested in early childhood education, standards to promote college and career readiness and systems to collect students’ test data throughout their time in public education. The Biden administration is similarly seeking to build an education system that takes young people from “cradle to college.”

When President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, federal investment in public education more than doubled from under $1 billion to nearly $2 billion. Upon signing the act, President Johnson said, “From our very beginnings as a nation, we have felt a fierce commitment to the ideal of education for everyone.” One of the debates since then, however, has been how much the federal government should steer – as well as help fund – public education.

The 1994 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act required states to adopt standards-based education reform for all schools, not just high-poverty ones, to receive Title I grants.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 expected states to test students in reading and math on a fixed schedule, bring all students to the proficient level by the 2013-2014 school year and hold schools accountable for student outcomes.

In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gave states some leeway about their education plans. Still, the new law required states to place “much greater weight” on academic indicators such as test scores and graduation rates than more subjective measures.

Conditional Contributions

The federal government covers about 8.5% of K-12 school districts’ budgets. However, the percentage varies by state. In fiscal 2017 in New York, for example, federal funding made up approximately $1.6 billion of the more than $70 billion that the state spent on elementary and secondary education. Given that there are costs associated with meeting the conditions necessary to get Title I funds, it might make sense for the state to forgo Title I grants and instead increase state school aid for high-need school districts.

The country’s elementary and high school education does not mandate what states and school districts do. Instead, school districts and states apply for Title I grants, and the federal government comes up with the conditions to get the money.

People close to the Biden administration are aware of Title I’s power to nudge states and school districts to do things they might not otherwise want to do. For instance, Ary Amerikaner, vice president of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income students and students of color, as well as a member of Biden’s education transition team, supports the requested $20 billion increase in Title I. However, she wants the Biden administration to “leverage it to change the vast rest of the public education spending inequities in our country.”

Resisting Federal Authority

Or take the topic of administering tests during a pandemic. In February 2021, Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary of education, told chief state school officers that the Biden administration expects states to administer federal tests. “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students,” he stated. The U.S. Department of Education has denied requests for a testing waiver from some states, including New York, Georgia and South Carolina.

The chancellor and commissioner of the New York State Education Department told the Biden administration that his department was “deeply disappointed” with the U.S. Department of Education’s denial of its request for a testing waiver. They added that “canceling state assessments would be the most appropriate and fair thing to do” for students living through a pandemic.

In a decision that seems to thwart the Biden administration’s expectation that states assess the learning of all students, New York officials decided this spring to have students “opt in” if they want to take the state test.

New York education leaders are taking a risk that the federal government might financially retaliate. In 2005, the U.S. Secretary of Education threatened to withhold $76 million from Utah’s federal education funds if the state did not use No Child Left Behind’s way to measure student achievement. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education told Arizona that it could lose $340 million in Title I funding if it did not comply with federal testing requirements.

Biden’s pitch to increase Title I funding is not just about investing more federal money in education. It is also about giving more education power to the federal government.

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  1. cocomaan

    People close to the Biden administration are aware of Title I’s power to nudge states and school districts to do things they might not otherwise want to do. For instance, Ary Amerikaner, vice president of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income students and students of color, as well as a member of Biden’s education transition team, supports the requested $20 billion increase in Title I. However, she wants the Biden administration to “leverage it to change the vast rest of the public education spending inequities in our country.”

    I share the reservations about the purpose of this funding.

    Federal government “nudging” (please stop helping, Cass, you’re not actually helping) implies that there’s something fundamentally wrong with what local municipalities are doing when it comes to how education is done in their communities.

    But nobody seems to be able to put their finger on what that is. Children already HAVE a cradle to college system with federal influence. Daycares have federal influence. K-12 does. College does. Can anyone argue that federal involvement has improved education?

    In the article about Upper Darby, a suburb of west Phildelphia cited in the article ( they talk about the Title 1 standards screwing over Upper Darby again when compared to Philadelphia’s receipt of these federal funds. That’s been the story for decades on Title 1.

    Seems to me that the federal govt butting out would be great. Won’t happen, though.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Can anyone argue that federal involvement has improved education?

      Woo! I hereby nominate this as the most awesome question of the year.

      There are parts of the federal government for which I’m truly appreciative, but the US Department of Education is not one of them. Their student loan program is arguably the largest predatory lending operation on the planet, and their myriad rules regulating various smaller aspects of education seem to be of dubious value at best.

      1. cocomaan

        It seems to me that the DofEd’s greatest work, and what it’s been resting its laurels on, has been their work to integrate schools. Everything else seems to have been a disaster and the integration efforts were choppy at best, considering where we are today, as many people have pointed out that schools are as de facto segregated as before (if not de jure).

        That’s probably a run on sentence but it’s late and I’m tired!

  2. 430MLK

    I teach ENG 101 at a local community college and can vouch for how poor reading skills directly impact how I teach my classes. From having to shrink the content/length of what students read, to limiting the amount of research and writing performed in the class (and also making the writing skills content as basic as possible–we have to focus on subjects and verbs….), the class is not what you’d expect of a college-level class. Apparently, there were similar issues with our our standard college math class–about 6 years ago, the college created a new class designed for non-STEM majors, which can take the place of what used to be called “College Math,” which is now designated for STEM majors. I get why the college did what they did. They need to show students graduating, and college math, like college English, is a gatekeeper class. But when we made college the new high school, an act that was solidified under the Obama educational initiatives, we basically just pushed K-12 issues up to 18-25 year olds, who now have to pay for their high school education with FAFSA and other loans.

    It’s not that I think all students need to be able to read and write and do basic math on a college level, though I agree w/ Yves that education has an important, though not exclusive, citizenship and ‘acting in the world’ component. A key solution seems to me to pay workers enough that they are not forced into college with the hope of getting a ‘livable’ wage (the idea itself increasingly more of a con, particularly for students with AA and AS degrees who graduate from a community college w/ no social capital attached to it). But in forcing students not prepared for college _into_ the college system, the effects harm _everyone_ in the class, particularly those who are prepared and have to move overly slow and in ways that make learning extremely boring and rote.

    1. cocomaan

      I can confirm this. Community College students will often be assigned – and charged for – remedial classes to catch up on skills. This seems benign but its more tuition out the door.

  3. flora

    Public education has been cut and cut and cut over the past 30 years. Increased federal support is a good idea in general. How the funding is spent – more tech or more teachers, eg – is very important. My 2 cents.

    Here’s an interview with a NE public high school physics teacher. The teacher does most of the talking. He sounds very frustrated with the current school teaching situation. I agreed with some of this and disagree with some of this. NC readers who teach might find this interesting.

    KunstlerCast 343 — Chat with the Anonymous High School Teacher about Secondary Education in America

  4. Screwball

    As a teacher of both high school and college – throwing more money at the problem (and yes, there is one) IS NOT the solution. I think my college does a fairly good job with what they have to work with – but high school – not good at all.

    They have different issues – and the college issues start with the high school issues – plus some they create on their own. What they are good at (and both do this) is to sacrifice education for money. Imagine that!

    I started teaching after 30 years in corporate America which is really corporate Darwinism – survive or get ate. What I have witnessed in my short span of teaching is frankly unbelievable. These high school kids are being herded through the system like cattle – if they can’t read, write, add and subtract – no big deal. Pass them anyway.

    I have talked to other teachers, including local administrators and principals. Since this is not my expertise I thought maybe I was just naive, or didn’t know better – but how can things be this way? If some dummy who is a fish out of water see these issues – why can’t the schools? And why don’t they do anything about it?

    As it turns out – I am not crazy, or nuts – as everyone sees the problems. Nobody seems to have an answer because the process seems to come from above – which nobody can change.

    It is so frustrating to see kids and young adults who can’t do basic math, read test instructions, and follow simple directions.

    The answer? Somehow, our educational system needs to be changed from an assembly line to a job shop. Like manufacturing learned years ago – a cell type concept is a lot more productive, and more importantly, adaptive, than the one size fits all herd them through plan.

    No wonder this country is so messed up – we are turning out semiliterates.

  5. PHLDenizen

    My beloved, cantankerous mother turns 71 next month. She graduated from Smith College with an English degree and briefly considered going into teaching — this was probably mid to late 70s. From the first day of her education classes, she was appalled at “what morons” (verbatim) her cohorts were. She recalled breezing through the placement tests for basic arithmetic and English, while her classmates struggled their way through it. Her disbelief that it could be so challenging was met with their disbelief that she could possibly find it so easy. Everyone was obsessed with having summers off, which to them was the main appeal of teaching. It sunk in that these would be her peers and she lasted about one semester, quitting in disgust.

    Mom is a strong believer in the women’s lib movement, but rightly identified it as a means of escape for talented, brainy women who would otherwise be trapped in vocations such as teaching. As these women decamped for law school, med school, finance, etc., there was a massive brain drain and the quality of instruction in public schools dropped precipitously.

    She also wrote a few papers while in school on the similarities between the architecture of prisons and that of schools built in the 60s and beyond. Hard to disagree with her observation that there are strong parallels. Both are prisons — one of the body and one of the mind. I was lucky enough to attend a single sex prep school.

    Long ago, I snagged a copy of a now (unfortunately) out of print book called The Underground History of American Education, written by one John Taylor Gotto, who taught in NYC public schools and emerged a disillusioned critic who produced this well-researched tome on how schooling in the US came to be a crapified system existing solely for shaping pupils into widgets. I keep meaning to send Lambert a copy, as the subject matter seems to be in his wheelhouse. I think there may be PDFs online, but do yourself and grab a printed edition. It’s thought provoking and fascinating without being overly didactic.

    1. wilroncanada

      Interesting PHLDenizen. My view of school architecture since I first attended elementary school in the late 1940s is: My first school was from the late 19th century–no gym, a central hall around which classrooms fanned, schoolyard asphalt and gravel. Six such schools fed a senior elementary school (now junior high). All the schools I attended late, including that senior elementary,r were factory-like, likely to acclimatize students to factory work after high school in the mill town. My home through most of my childhood was two blocks from the local general hospital, and also two blocks from the Stelco–Steel Company of Canada– wire rope mill.
      The schools I have seen built over the last 20 years are not like that: they resemble, if anything, shopping malls. Again, to acclimatize students to the accumulation of things., Buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like, just as their parents have been doing. Many of them have been built as P3s (Public Private Partnerships). After 20 years, the length of the contract, they are easily converted to their seemingly original purpose, shopping..

  6. JK

    “This teacher said the reason high school chemistry had been so dumbed down from the level she and I had gotten (and remember this woman is a generation younger than me) is that many students in her class had deficient reading and math skills. And that was because no student in California could be held back a grade if the parents said no.” This is an incorrect causation.

    “New research suggests repeating elementary school grades — even kindergarten — is harmful”

    1. coboarts

      The schools haven’t even begun to leverage the power of computing. No child needs to be held back from their age cohort if each student’s individual progress can be tracked and taught to mastery, something technology is very good at.

      But even without the tech, tutoring for Sylvan Learning Centers back when I first started into teaching opened my eyes to a very effective method. They tested and broke down academic skills in detail. Then, they taught and tested at that detailed level until the skill was mastered then rechecked for retention as the student moved on. It was quite effective and something that tech will one day do for schools.

      A centralized system with access to a vast array of curriculum can do that for schools across the nation. My concern is that when I talk to my tech friends they all see the teacher’s role as becoming a caretaker. That’s where I suggest giving the arts, plastic and performing, a leadership role in developing the education for the digital future of schools. The teacher’s role can become more of a producer/director for their students.

      1. JK

        I agree technology does well at finding students’ areas of needs. However, we still desperately need more teachers that engage the area of needs. We lack teachers that have the ability to engage with students along with the awareness, without needing technology, to understand these area of needs. Not that there aren’t 100,000s of teachers that can but, that there are 100,000s more that are needed. This country has given up on seeing public education as an investment. It’s an expenditure.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, the causation is indeed the law in California. The parents can and do nix kids being held back.

      The study is crap. “Mixed two large data sets.” No you do your own new basic research OR you work with separate data sets as separate and THEN do a meta-study.

      And how are the kids to learn if they aren’t held back? You can see the consequences in illiteracy at levels never seen in the days when kids were made to repeat grades.

      1. JK

        I’m a teacher and that is what I’m using as my research and can be argued as only anecdotal. That is why I used another’s research to try to validate. I don’t know what your personal experience is with students that have been held back. Before I was a teacher, my older brother was held back in kindergarten. It was not an issue at all in our house. However, his peers were relentless. He unfortunately passed away recently and it was even a topic of discussion at the wake. I never talked to him about this and have no idea how it effected him. I do have a sense that it was a piece of his psychological makeup. My professional examples are limitless.

        And how are the kids to learn if they aren’t held back? You can see the consequences in illiteracy at levels never seen in the days when kids were made to repeat grades. My personal educational philosophy does not worry so much that a student isn’t meeting a certain lexile level or at their math grade level. Obviously, that is important but that is just the measurement. I’m in a low income community and most of our students have many other worries. Making sure they don’t lose the drive to learn is my most important task. If you give me a student that was held back, you have made my job incredibly more difficult…. I’m not as versed in these educational research studies as I should be as an educator, however I do have experience with the psychological behavior of adolescents… The “back in my day” argument regarding when kids were made to repeat, this does factor in the advancement of technology and the number of new factors that draw student’s attention away from the classroom? Because, this is a very important point from my experience.

  7. coboarts

    I obtained my teaching credentials, multiple and single subjects, in the 90s. I went back to school for a master’s degree and the chance to participate in the booming tech world here in Silicon Valley, keeping my credentials in my back pocket. In K-12 I’ve had a variety of experiences that can add to Yves intro and some of the comments.

    My student teaching was done in a fifth grade. For Math we were supposed to teach according to the new, then current paradigm that included learning Russian peasant algorithms and playing with widgets. The first day my master teacher left the room to me to teach Math on my own, Brett, one of the smartest kids in the class, raised his hand and said “Mr. C, I still don’t understand how to multiply two numbers times two numbers. So, I pulled the shades, grabbed the overhead, and walked the class through place value. Then we began multiplication drills. I got into a little trouble for marching the class around the perimeter of the playground chanting the times tables…

    Many years later I was back in education teaching at an alternative high school and also teaching GED to adults. This was during the time when CA schools were requiring passage of the California High School Exit Exams for English and Math. The Math exam being quite identical to the GED. It had become quite clear to me that our students who struggle with Math have all broken down at the level of fractions.

    And by digging into that, I realized that the breakdown began with division. And then I realized that the reason division wasn’t getting through was that the times tables had been abandoned in the curriculum, and the division became too hard to process. If you don’t ‘get’ division how can you handle fractions, ratios and percents? And if you can’t handle fractions, how are you going to solve for an unknown??

    My specialty at the alternative high school was getting kids caught back up to grade level in all subjects. I challenge anyone with even the greatest fear of Math, that I can teach them all the Math they’ll need to pass their tests and to function fully in today’s society, up to time, rate, distance type solving for the unknown.

    What the schools are doing, however, is, as said above, pushing students through the ranks and carelessly neglecting to assure that the basics have been grasped. You can’t build much of a structure if the foundations are wobbly.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Marching while chanting the times tables? I would have loved your class!

      Back in the day, wiggly little Slim had to sit in a seat during flash cards time.

  8. Cameron

    I guess whether to trust states to do a better job than the Fed is sort of dependent on which states we’re talking about. I live in Florida, where the state legislature is in love with charter schools. I’m not a charter fan at all, although I don’t have any skin in the game. It seems that delivering quality public education here is going to have to go county by county,

  9. scott s.

    I live in Hawaii. There is a single state-wide school district, which for some is considered an ideal. We have an appointed board of education, but effectively the state legislature is the board due to its financial control (no funding comes from local property taxes). There is a history here of parents who are concerned about their children’s education and also have the financial ability to opt out of the public system. At least in Honolulu there was an attempt after WWII to create an achievement-oriented subset of public education (English-standard schools) but that was eliminated as elitist. In the current system everyone calls for excellence, but accepts much less. Meanwhile the Superintendent is departing, generally considered to be at the demand of the union. (The Board is appointed by the governor, so in some respects the Gov is the “real” superintendent).

    Unfortunately it appears the most celebrated achievement is that now Oahu public schools are playing the private schools in football (at least pre-Covid).

  10. Paul Kleinman

    In the current period of political war being waged by proto-fascist Republican state governments against US Constitutional guarantees and laws for free public K-12 education, the federal government must be the one to ensure we don’t go back to the fifties and sixties where legal and de facto racist education was encased so deeply that most Black and Latinx and some poor Asian and white children have really never escaped. What is truly worrisome on top of this is the openly anti-science policies that the Trump/white evangelist coalition openly push. No easy answers here. I have a dear and committed nephew who started his career in education in Teach America, spending a year in Mississippi. Back in NY the NY metro area he ended up becoming a champion of the elite charter school system, highly competitive and strongly influenced by big private donors, because that way, at least a few children of color (admitted to these schools) ‘could get a decent education’. I believe that that free, decent, effective education for all children will require a social revolution as well as a political one.

  11. Vthestate

    I wonder about kids with parents that can not read or do math….. the skills and inspiration to get an education at school….buttress at home. I read the comments concerning Chem standards, wondering about the back round of home and school expectations.of the commenters. Those comments were made by folks that did well and their education served them well. Many students do not think school will make a positive difference in their life, see no one that works hard and inspires them. Test are not all bad….as in quizzes….daily. I also wonder if anyone is teaching to the testing and getting good results.

  12. GramSci

    “And that was because no student in California could be held back a grade if the parents said no.”

    My mother used to sing the praises of her one-room schoolhouse in Cato, Wisconsin. No kid was ever “held back” or promoted because there were no “grade levels”. Every child learned at their own rate.

    More importantly, the children were encouraged to help one another. The older children learned to teach and care for the younger children. An age-appropriate laboratory in real-world “Civics”.

    Instead, as Gatto makes clear long form, the societal model of the “modern” school is the factory.

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