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Making the Case for Keeping the Federal Role in Education

There has been much talk in recent months from freshman and Tea Party Congressmen about the role of the federal government in education, and even calls to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. In a new paper released this month by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), Get the Federal Government Out of Education? That Wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ Vision, Jack Jennings lays out several reasons why limiting the federal government’s role in education would be “a wrong-headed, simplistic move.”

First, federal involvement in education is not a new phenomenon. Laws from the 1700s granted federal lands to new states that could be used for public education. These policies existed even before Washington was elected president, and lasted 170 years until the Eisenhower Administration.

Second, it would limit the ability of states and local districts to use tax dollars to support public education. While only 8% of funding for public education comes from the federal government, the federal tax code, through a number of deductions and exclusions from federal taxation, incentivizes states and locals to use their tax dollars for public education. According to CEP, these indirect subsidies for education earned through the federal tax code were worth somewhere between $42 billion to $48 billion for all levels of education in 2009.

Third, federal student financial aid makes college more affordable, leading individuals to good jobs and a better life. Almost three-fourths of student aid comes from the federal government, and if this aid did not exist, many students would be unable to access postsecondary education and training.

Fourth, the federal government has long supported equal educational opportunities for minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and the poor. For example, according to Jennings, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was enacted for the purpose of providing “vocational” education to new immigrants and those with low levels of education.

Finally, broad education reforms at that federal level, rather than piecemeal interventions at the local level, will help to raise the United States’ academic achievement and competiveness among other countries. During the last four presidential administrations, reforms such as increased accountability and uniform standards, have gained traction at the federal and national levels.

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