The New Federal Role in Education and Family Services: Goal Setting without Responsibility

By Allen-Meares, Paula | Social Work, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Federal Role in Education and Family Services: Goal Setting without Responsibility


Allen-Meares, Paula, Social Work


The school system has been increasingly unable to support the myth of equal opportunity and full personal development.

(Bowles & Gintis, 1976, p. 4)

At a time when public schools are under enormous pressure to address a variety of social and educational needs and to achieve substantial reform, implement mandates, and respond to the growing diversity of pupils, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in July 1995 to drastically reduce education funding by over $4 billion in fiscal year 1996. In mid-September, the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over education spending approved a plan to cut education funding by approximately $2.5 billion. At the same time, human services, welfare, and health care were also targeted for reduction.

These actions have both symbolic and real meanings. A consistent theme throughout these political maneuverings is the reduction in the role of the federal government in education, welfare, and health care to ensure greater state flexibility and autonomy. Entitlements are to be replaced with block grants.

There has been no discussion of the importance of state and federal partnerships, of inequities among the states in terms of resources, and of the consequences of eliminating basic entitlements. Presently, there are large differences in education expenditures per student and welfare expenditures per recipient within individual states as well as among the states. It is predicted that these gaps will continue to grow in the proposed environment.

In the past the nation's schools have been given the burden of addressing inequities in society, whether attributed to class or racial characteristics. In some instances the family has been blamed for the high rates of educational failure among youths. But neither the school nor the family should be singled out. Neither institution is in a position to eradicate all social injustices or to create equality of educational opportunity unless other supports and social institutions are part of the solution. Public schools alone cannot remediate the effects of the structural shifts in the U.S. economy or the consequences of escalating poverty rates.

Powerful economic forces and technological advancements are driving the structural shifts in the economy. For about three decades differentials in economic status have widened both between and within demographic groups; the result has been a rising tide of inequality (Danziger, 1995). The difference in earnings between blue-collar and white-collar workers has increased, but earnings have eroded both for people with marginal educational or technical skills and for an increasing number of skilled and highly educated workers.

Who will advocate for the disenfranchised members of this society - for children and their families? Who will hold state and federal governments accountable? This article examines the diminishing and ambivalent role of the federal government in addressing the growing inequalities in a democratic society; it pays particular attention to public education and its effects on and approaches to the family. This article addresses inequalities in economic and educational opportunity, the transformation of the family in the United States, structural inadequacies in the educational system, efforts currently under way to reform schools, and the implications for the social work profession.

During the historical evolution of the profession, social workers were consistent vocal advocates for social justice - whether the concern was for immigrants during the settlement house movement of the 19th century or the rights of racial or ethnic groups in the United States during the 1960s. "Advocacy is the premise on which the social work profession is founded and an ethical obligation for the practitioner. However, this advocacy must be informed advocacy - proceeding from knowledge of the U.S. legal system, laws, etc." (Lynch & Mitchell, 1995, pp. 10-11). …

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