This post reviews Gareth Davies, See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan(U Press of Kansas, 2007).
Not so long ago conservatives wanted the federal government out of education entirely, yet it was the Bush administration and a Republican Congress that gave us No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a revision of Lyndon Johnson’s original great society education legislation that vastly increases federal intrusiveness into local educational issues. Why? Davies, a Lecturer in American History at Oxford University and author of the award-winning From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism, here describes the steady growth of federal regulation of public education in the United States from its tentative beginnings in the mid 1960s to its full flourishing under the Reagan administration, showing throughout that both liberals and conservatives have used big government to accomplish their educational agendas.
The book is essentially a chronological look at the growing federal role in education from the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 to the release of A Nation at Risk by Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education. Davies covers a lot of ground: the federal role in desegregation efforts, bilingual education, special education, school finance, and the creation of the Department of Education. He spends considerable time unpacking the role of the various Presidents during this time period: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In this review I will not summarize all of this rich information. Interested readers would do well to get a copy of the book itself if they want a detailed and authorotative account of these themes. Instead, I’d like to summarize a few of Davies’ main arguments and relate them to the topic of homeschooling.
1. Davies’ central and most provocative argument is that despite all the evidence and historical writing leading one to believe that the period from Nixon to Reagan (and, indeed, to our time) was basically a conservative backlash against the liberal great society reforms of Johnson, in fact big government is even bigger now than it was then. Why? There are two basic reasons. First, once established, federal programs quickly develop constituencies dependent upon them and who lobby hard for the programs to continue. Despite the anti-government rhetoric, conservatives are just as addicted to government money as are liberals. Second, conservatives have in large measure abandoned “the small government faith of their forefathers.” They have done so partly because phrases like “local control” and “States’ rights” became tainted by association with Southern racism and resistance to desegregation and partly because conservatives recognized that their ideals could be imposed at the federal level even if they fail locally. All of these themes are realized most perfectly in the field of education. As Davies summarizes,
The federal role in schools became bolder and ever more entrenched between  and 1984, despite a lack of convincing evidence that federal dollars were improving the quality of American education, and despite the fact that there were Republicans in the White House much of the time who were committed to reigning in federal spending, and overhauling ESEA.
2. A second and related argument is that educational legislation, even more than other kids of federal programs, is hard to dismantle because of the abiding faith of both conservative and liberal Americans in public schools as the means of providing equal opportunities to all Americans. A politician who came out against federal funding risked being dubbed “anti-education,” and who wants to be that? It doesn’t matter that all the evidence shows that schools don’t and can’t really provide equal opportunities. Americans want to believe that they can, so let any politician seeking to burst this bubble beware. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole found this out the hard way in the mid 1990s when their promise to “end federal meddling in our schools” garnered them the “antieducation” tag.
3. A third constant theme of Davies’ narrative is the impact of the African American civil rights struggle on subsequent federal regulations. It took vigorous federal enforcement to overcome Southern resistance to desegregation. In the 1970s and 80s other groups–the disabled, non-English speakers, girls–claimed the mantle of black civil rights struggle and obtained federal regulatory support as well. All of this regulation in behalf of the rights of various groups “helped to make the subsequent intrusions of NCLB seem less revolutionary than would otherwise have been the case, especially since George W. Bush explicitly presented that revision to the 1965 law as being about the civil rights of the educationally disadvantaged.”
4. Finally, Davies continually stresses that the expanding federal role in education was not, on the whole, a presidential initiative or a “bottom-up” people’s movement. Instead, it was the work of unelected career government workers: “judges, career civil servants, public interest lawyers, congressional subcommittee staffers, interest group lobbyists.” Much of his book tells the stories of these people who worked behind the scenes to create policies that garnered no headlines but have had tremendous and long-lived impact.
Where does homeschooling fit into all of this? I have two comments to make. First, while it makes sense given his thesis for Davies to focus only on aspects of federal policy in the 1970s and 80s that showcase increasing Federal oversight of education, there were other things going on at the same time that, if considered, would weaken his case a bit, or at least complicate it. At the same time that the Federal government was tightening its control over public schools, State legislatures and courts were making it easier for people to get out of them. Davies’ book makes no mention of private education or homeschooling, both of which flourished during these years and enjoyed increasing freedom from government regulation. While little of this growth was the direct result of the federal initiatives Davies chronicles, one could look at Supreme Court decisions related to religion and education (chronicled with great care and lively prose in Joan DelFattore’s The Fourth R) to get a sense of how the Federal role impacted this development, as well as the overwhelming reaction of Christian conservatives against Carter’s effort to regulate private schools. My point is that Davies is telling only half of the story. A more complete picture of educational policy in the late 20th century might reveal, ironically, an increasing federal regulation of public schools even as private and homeschools are increasingly left alone. Not surprisingly, among conservatives who have kept faith with their small government forefathers, more and more of them left and are leaving public schools out of frustration with government regulation, even though these regulations are now coming from Republicans.
Secondly, I think some of Davies’ arguments could be used to clarify and explain how homeschooling was able to achieve what it did in the 1980s and 1990s. Davies describes how many groups were able to ride on the coat-tails of the civil rights movement. Homeschoolers did this as well. They became one among a host of special-interest pressure groups who took advantage of the national mood (reflected especially in the courts) to favor such groups’ claims. Davies focuses on the inner workings of special interest groups lobbying for bilingual education, special education, and other initiatives rather than on homeschooling, but with homeschooling the story was much the same. Lawyers, volunteer activists (almost all of them parents), and other nongovernmental personnel worked with politicians behind the scenes to craft legislation and obtain court decisions favorable to their cause. Homeschoolers never got the landmark federal court case some wanted (and others feared), nor, except for a brief mention in the Higher Education Act, has their movement made it into federal legislation (to the great relief of some who fear the very regulatory expansion this book chronicles), but the dynamics of the “new American political system” chronicled here by Davies goes a long way in explaining how the homeschooling movement achieved what it did.