The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 sparked widespread controversy over the federal government’s proper role in public education. Opponents criticized the legislation as an unprecedented federal intrusion on state and local governments’ policymaking authority. Whereas previous incarnations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) required local schools and districts to comply with detailed rules about how to spend categorical funds, federal moneys were never before made contingent on a rigorous testing and accountability regime. By requiring annual testing and tying federal funding to student outcomes, the new legislation signaled a shift in the federal government’s role vis à vis subnational governing bodies. This shift in authority led some to question whether state and local governments’ structural protections from federal overreaching are dead—at least in the field of public education. In The Political Safeguards of Federalism, Herbert Wechsler argued that because states’ rights are preserved through the legislative process, the Supreme Court need not intervene to protect states from federal regulatory intervention. The legislative process shelters state autonomy, Wechsler argued, by ensuring that federal legislation must gain the approval of the Senate, which is responsive to state interests, the House, whose congressional districts are dictated by state legislatures, and the president, who depends on states through the Electoral College system. According to critics, congressional acquiescence in President George W. Bush’s drive for top-down standards-based reform (SBR) demonstrates the failure of these traditional safeguards. Beginning in the 1990s, the Supreme Court stopped deferring to federal regulatory authority and began striking down legislation it deemed overly intrusive. According to the Court, national political institutions had failed to protect state interests, thus necessitating a more robust role for the judiciary in preserving the delicate balance between state and federal interests. Because federal legislators are under pressure to solve pressing national problems but are not responsible for implementation, they will inevitably pass the buck to state representatives by voting for coercive, unfunded mandates. Bipartisan support for NCLB brought together the likes of Representative Tom DeLay, a fierce opponent of federal intervention who once sought to eliminate the Department of Education, and liberal Democrats such as Senator Edward Kennedy, lending support to the Supreme Court’s more aggressive stance. It could be argued that federal representatives arrived at a legislative compromise without seriously considering NCLB’s impact on a broad spectrum of state and local constituents. In response to mounting criticism of Wechsler’s theory, Dean Larry Kramer has developed an alternative version of the political safeguards framework. He posits that the political party system itself protects states from federal intrusion because each party has representatives operating at multiple layers of government, all of whom are mutually dependent. According to this theory, representatives at the national level must respond to local and state concerns in exchange for political support, thus producing a natural check on federal encroachment. Dean Kramer further characterizes the proliferation of bureaucratic agencies beginning with the New Deal as an additional political safeguard of federalism. Like national political parties, regulatory agencies link federal, state, and local administrators together because the federal government relies on administrators at lower levels of government to implement policy. Dean Kramer’s revived political safeguards theory has interesting implications for the education field because of the unique role that politics and bureaucracy have played in the promulgation and implementation of federal education legislation. In this paper, I will apply Kramer’s political safeguards thesis to four educational reform movements: a New Deal Youth Program, administrative progressivism, the ESEA, and the modern standards-based reform (SBR) movement culminating in NCLB. Specifically, I will draw on educational reforms of these four periods to explore the extent to which bureaucracy and the party system can successfully mediate disputes over the division of power between local, state, and federal government.
Sharma, Elizabeth J.
"Education Reform and the Political Safeguards of Federalism,"
The Bridge: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Legal & Social Policy: Vol. 3:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalscholarship.tsu.edu/thebridge/vol3/iss1/3