With trivial exceptions, Washington does not run schools, employ teachers, buy textbooks, write curriculum, hand out diplomas, or decide who gets promoted to 5th grade. Historically, it has contributed less than 10 percent of national K-12 spending. So its influence on what happens in U.S. schools is indirect and limited. Yet that influence can be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Uncle Sam is dreadful at micromanaging what actually happens in schools and classrooms. What he's best at is setting agendas and driving priorities. Through a combination of jawboning, incentivizing, regulating, mandating, forbidding, spotlighting, and subsidizing, he can significantly influence the overall direction of the K-12 system and catalyze profound changes in it (though the system is so loosely coupled that these changes occur gradually and incompletely).
Washington's influence on U.S. schools is indirect and limited—but it can also be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Photo by Joe Portnoy.
It's just as well that such big directional shifts don't happen very often, because the change, however gradual, can be wrenching. And it isn't apt to happen much more often in the future, either, because the "federal government" is no single entity. It is, at minimum, three branches, two political parties, 535 members of Congress, innumerable judges, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget,...