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Education Policy and Civil Rights in the Reagan Administration

Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 over Carter on a platform that focused largely on cutting down on “big government.” In the field of education, the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA) of 1981 moved to decentralize and deregulate the federal role in education while spending less on federal aid. Its major sections were now called “chapters” rather than “titles.” Chapter I became the new name for Title I for compensatory education of disadvantaged students in schools with high poverty. Education for children with disabilities also continued in separate legislation. But Chapter II of ECIA was a showcase innovation: a “block” grant. It pulled together 32 small federal programs. The items blocked in Chapter II ranged from the Emergency Schools Assistance Act (ESAA) for desegregation costs, to metric education, environmental education, and other small programs. The states received their share purely on the basis of population and were required to allocate at least 80 % of it directly to districts. Districts were then permitted to allocate the Chapter II funds as they wished among the 32 programs.

This devolution of control came at a time when state and local budgets were tight, and the ECIA bill itself reduced allocations for many programs. There was less money for both Chapter I and Chapter II (in comparison to its 32 constituent programs separately) than had been the case a year before, so the states and districts had to make their decisions about Chapter II allocations in the midst of a funding crisis. Furthermore, Chapter II had a much smaller budget than Chapter I. In many districts, these 32 programs had added up to as little as 1 % of the elementary and secondary school costs, although ranging upward in large city districts that had many more families in poverty and many remaining desegregation activities.

A strong shift of money from urban to suburban and rural, and a shift away from desegregation, resulted from the funding changes. Previously a large share of the funds represented by these 32 separate programs had gone to large urban districts— partly because ESAA was the largest program in the block, and partly because urban school staffs were more likely to apply successfully for grants. But Chapter II funds required no application. The money came just on the basis of school population.

The shift can be seen in these figures: Wilmington, DE, received $3.3 million just from ESAA the year before the block funding; under ECIA, the amount of block funds for all Chapter II purposes the next year was only $1.7 million. St. Louis and Kansas City received $7.0 million between them under ESAA; the next year the entire state of Missouri received $8.7 million for Chapter II overall (Verstegen 1985, 521). Another study showed that 20 urban school districts, including Atlanta, Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, and New York, collectively received $110 million from the ESAA alone in 1980; the next year, they collectively received $38 million for all the programs combined in the block grant (Salomone 1986, 179). Despite the overall reduction in ECIA funds, and perhaps because of the shift from urban districts, school officials in many rural and suburban districts praised ECIA as a modest return to local control, as it was intended to be (Turnbull and Marks 1986, 61, 63).

The Reagan administration proposed large cuts in other education programs. Education advocates in Congress strained against it, settling for budgets larger than the White House proposed but less than many had wished. Within these small annual increases, some of the flagship programs of the 1960s and 1970s were reduced. Rosemary Salomone writes that between 1980 and 1984, federal funding cuts, adjusted for inflation, were as follows: 9.3 % for special education, 19.7 % for compensatory education for disadvantaged students; and 39.8 % for bilingual education (Salomone 1986, 180).

In addition to the shift of priorities in the small block grants—which worked disproportionately against desegregation aid—and targeted cuts in programs for compensatory education, bilingual education, and special education, there was also a slowdown of enforcement in civil rights suits. This was part of the Reagan platform to transfer authority in education to the states and districts. One of the effects of this philosophy was to diminish federal programs that had been intended to increase opportunity. [1] Overall, this was the last period when the federal portion of funding diminished.

  • [1] I do not have data on expenses specifically for Title IX, which bars discrimination against women, as a part of the budget of the Office of Civil Rights in HEW. Salomone (1986, 180) reports that enforcement of Title IX was reduced during the Reagan administration, and that the Reagan administration tried to either block grant or zero budget the Women's Educational Equity Act, which complemented Title IX by providing funds to promote sex equity and eliminate sex-stereotyping in education materials. Women's advocacy groups succeeded in lobbying, and he signed a five-year extension of the program in 1984.
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