How Does Federalism Affect Education


stack of school books next to American flag and gavel main

Federalism is a system of government that divides power between the individual parts and the whole. Education in the United States has traditionally largely been a state matter. There are certain constitutional limits (no racial inequality) as well as the ability of the federal government to regulate, including by use of spending programs to provide “strings.”  

Federalism Basics

Federalism is a system of government that divides power between the individual parts and the whole.  The U.S. Constitution sets forth a federal form of government in our own country. 

States and the federal government in the United States each have certain powers.  States do not have their own armies.  The federal government does not run the New York City subway.

The Constitution also puts certain limits on all governments.  The city is not allowed to only allow whites on their subway cars.  Federal officials help enforce these limits.  

Finally, the federal government (now in D.C.) has certain ways to encourage state action.  Congress can give states money, for instance, but require something in return. 

Education Is Important 

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.

Education was always important. Humans with our big brains and the ability to communicate with each other have the ability to share a lot of information.  We educate each other in a variety of ways.  As society grew, separate places (schools) were given the job to educate children.  

American governments continued this tradition.  A basic education was not only necessary to be a good person (including knowing how to read holy books) but to be a good citizen.  American values and traditions are taught in school as much as reading, writing, and arithmetic.  

A good education is more and more important as society gets more complex.  It was necessary to promote equality. Education became mandatory and something the government heavily regulated.  Private education is allowed but still has to follow basic requirements. 

State Focused 

Education in the United States traditionally was something left to the states. The Constitution does not directly give the federal government much authority over schools.  

State control generally brings with it both positives and negatives.  The same applies in the field of education.  Either way, state discretion has a big influence on our education system.

Each state has the power to set forth its own requirements for lesson plans.  Does critical race theory not appeal to you?  Your state very well might deem it not appropriate for local schools.

School district lines are also determined state by state.  This has various complications. One concern in recent years, for instance, is economic inequality between districts.  The quality of your education might depend on where you live.  

State control also means a range of education-related things are largely decided locally including transportation, public safety, and hiring of staff. 

For instance, the Supreme Court held that a federal law banning minors from having guns near schools was not constitutional.  States had the discretion to choose their own local policy.  

There are various benefits involved in state control of education. It provides a chance for diversity nationwide, depending on the needs and desires of the state. 

Smaller units also provide more ability for the people themselves to be involved.  People can vote for local school boards.  They have no ability to vote for members of the Department of Education.  The flip side is that a local-based system can be short-sighted and parochial.  

National Limits 

The federal government always had some concern for education, including when regulating its territories.  The nation’s capital, Washington D.C., is still not a state, after all.

The end of slavery and the passage of additional protections for the rights of all expanded the role of the federal government, restricting the power of the states.  For instance, students have certain free speech rights and public schools cannot be segregated by race.  

Federal “Strings”

The federal government also has ways to influence education.  High school students know a lot about financial aid while looking into colleges. A prime source of aid is the federal government. Many who fought in World War II benefited from the GI Bill that funded their education. 

Federal aid is also very important for schools, even if technically they are not required to accept the money.  The money brings with it “strings” that allow the federal government to do things they could not require directly.  For instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires certain things for all schools that accept federal funding.  

The combination of federal regulations based on constitutional requirements and those that are “strings” to obtain federal funds allows the government to have a lot of power over state-run schools.  Important student and teacher issues are involved here, including sexual harassment, rules for GLBTQ students, and a whole lot more.  

Federal involvement is an attempt to protect all students, including the economically disadvantaged (including, for instance, school lunch programs) and those with a range of special education needs such as those with ADHD

Personal Thoughts 

I went to a range of schools.  

State public schools had a local touch while still being required to follow certain federal rules and regulations.  I later went to Catholic schools in large part because my parents felt the city public schools available did not provide a good enough education.  

Federalism provides such options but it also shows the limits of the system if a student can not feel safe in some public schools.  Education is essential for equal citizenship, which at least since the Civil War Era has in many important ways rightly deemed a national issue.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

RELATED ARTICLES: