In the Rodriguez decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs did not have a right under the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, which required the state of Texas to remedy disparities in funding for schools in high-wealth and low-wealth school districts. One of the principal reasons that the Court rejected the plaintiffs' claims was the need to maintain the current balance of power between the federal and state governments over education. Indeed, the Court acknowledged in Rodriguez that even though all equal protection claims implicate federalism, "it would be difficult to imagine a case having a greater potential impact on our federal system than the one now before us," because upholding the plaintiffs' claims would ultimately lead the Court to invalidate the school systems in all fifty states. Although some contend that these decisions and results are driven more by a lack of political will rather than education federalism, the consistency with which federalism has arisen as a real or imagined obstacle to reforms aimed at ensuring equal educational opportunity suggests that federalism is a significant contributing factor, even if other factors also adversely influenced these reforms.

I contend that the United States should strategically restructure and strengthen the federal role in education to establish the necessary foundation for a national effort to ensure equal access to an excellent education. This restructuring and strengthening of the federal role in education would require shifting some power away from the state and local governments and toward the federal government. The United States would then need to adopt a new understanding of education federalism that embraces the federal government as the guarantor of equal opportunity, because it is the only government with the capacity and sufficient incentive to lead a national effort to achieve this widely supported, yet persistently elusive, goal. Although this would not require federalizing the nation's education system as at least one scholar has recommended, it would require acceptance of a larger federal role in education to hold the states accountable for ensuring that all students receive equal access to an excellent education.

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