Making the Educational State: Agenda-Setting, Federal-State Relations, and the Transformation of Educational Policymaking and Governance in the United States, 1975-2007

Rhodes, Jesse Hessler, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, a new "educational state" has developed in the United States. This new policy regime is comprised of three major pillars. At the ideological level, it is undergirded by a paradigm of educational quality, which emphasizes the improvement of all students' academic skills and the closing of achievement gaps, focuses on the schools as the primary mechanism for achieving these goals, and insists on institutional accountability for performance. At the institutional level, the new regime is composed of a system, created through policy tools, of interlocking educational standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms. At the level of governance, it is characterized by increasing federal intrusion into educational matters - standard - setting, testing, accountability, and teacher quality - that were long devolved to states and localities. This project offers a new interpretation of these developments. Contrary to previous approaches stressing economic necessity, public demand, or intergovernmental "borrowing strength," this manuscript shows that this regime emerged from the confluence of elite agenda - setting at the national level and feedback from policymaking at the state and local levels. A coalition of reformers initiated a new agenda focused on "excellence in education" and accountability for results at the state level, hoping to improve the quality of education. However, reformers' disillusionment with the uneven diffusion of their favored reforms across states eventually led them to look to the federal government to impose greater uniformity on state - level policymaking; while their dissatisfaction with the haphazard character of reforms within states encouraged them to demand that policymaking increasingly be rationalized around explicit educational standards, assessments, and aligned accountability. The analysis reveals that the "laboratories of democracy", by frustrating agendasetters’ hopes and expectations, may ironically contribute to the expansion of centralized governmental authority. The manuscript also sheds theoretical and empirical light on a curious (but frequent) development in recent years: the emergence of a "big government conservatism" that seeks to recast, rather than retrench, federal authority.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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