President Ronald Reagan

Not only did the federal government outdo itself with the ESEA in 1965, but Carl Kaestle1 claims that between 1957 and 1978 the trajectory of federal intervention in education was generally upward even though the road was bumpy.

However, all that changed when President Reagan took office.

As soon as he took office there was a distinct shift in the federal policy on education. President Reagan was a man filled with great disdain for a federal role in education.

He did not believe in “big government” and firmly decided to bury what he considered to be the myth that “big government” brought more opportunity and compassion.

As a result, in 1981, he gained passage of a bill, the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA), to drastically reduce the provisions of ESEA.2

Ably supported by a strong Republican presence in Congress, he was able to set about reducing and redefining the federal role in education.

To him, the guiding principles of the federal role should be privatization, choice, and competition, rather than equity.

However, his eagerness to reduce the federal role in education was soon tempered by the publication of the report, A Nation at Risk.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) forced the nation to take a serious look at the situation in education.


This report claimed that American “students were not studying the right subjects, were not working hard enough, and were not learning enough. Their schools suffered from slack and uneven standards.”

A Nation at Risk suggested that public schools needed to be reformed drastically so that they could give priority to the sciences and mathematics.

Both President Reagan and his Secretary of Education, Terrence Bell, had hoped that the report would support their views.

Bell believed that the report of the commission would show that the public schools were doing a satisfactory job.

The report did not endorse the Reagan plan to eliminate the Department of Education nor did it call for the creation of vouchers to support private schools. It also did not deliver the positive endorsement of public schools for which Mr. Bell had hoped.3

While the Report did not alter the position of the Reagan administration, it did, however, help to create public awareness and therefore restrict the all-out assault by the administration on the federal involvement in education.

As a result, the trend toward greater federal control in education continued in the 1980s “despite the concerted efforts of Reagan and his conservative administration.”4

The block grant5 was a long-standing method of federal aid disbursement favored by the republicans.

In 1967, Representative A. Quie (R-Minn) proposed an amendment to replace “categorical” grants with “block grants” to the states.

He was at that time a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and felt that state education agencies were better able than the federal Office of Education to distribute the ESEA funds.

The block grant proposal did not find favor with large urban city school superintendents and civil rights groups. They believed that the best way to ensure that federal aid went to the most disadvantaged students was to allow the federal administration of the program.

In particular, the NAACP felt that the block grant could become a vehicle for getting around racial guidelines if states were not willing to enforce them.6

President Reagan was not happy with the continued federal involvement in education. He was disgusted with any federal overreach and so he made every effort to reverse the trend mentioned above.

In the next post I will discuss President George H.W. Bush and the move towards standards.

1. Kaestle,, Federal Education Policy and the Changing National Polity for Education, 1957-2007, 2007, 29
2. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006, 42

3. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006, 43
4. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006, 45

5. A block grant is a sum of money given to an education authority with no specific conditions as to how that money is to be spent. On the other hand, a categorical grant is one with specific direction as to how the money should be spent.

6. New York State Education Department, Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2004: A Brief Synopsis, 2006, 19