FWIW, Really Not All That Bright, I’m IN the education system, and I’ve not noticed that the Federal efforts on behalf of general education have done much of anything positive. Certainly, the very poorly mis-named No Child Left Behind law has done little to solve education problems in either of the states in which I’ve been involved (Ohio or South Carolina). Special education, on the other hand, has been almost exclusively the result of federal laws and regulations, and that’s a very important result.
As to the OP:
There was a fundamental shift of political viewpoint caused by the Great Depression and its aftermath. If you read the proposals of the Democratic Party prior to the GD, Democrats as a whole were not particularly in favor of big federal government. For example, in 1924, both the Republican and Democrat candidates were essentially “conservative” socially and fiscally; Robert La Follette ran on the Progressive Party ticket to offer liberal voters from both parties an option. But the GD re-aligned the political conversation. The Democrats went with the idea that a strong federal government was needed to solve the underlying problems of unemployment and poverty resulting from the crash of the stock market and the failure of the financial system. They embraced along with this shift large-government viewpoints on a large number of issues, such as labor laws, food safety, etc. In short, they argued a paradigm shift was needed in how the country was to be governed. When the Supreme Court for a few years stood in the way of this popular shift in thinking, the Democrat administration threatened to revamp the Court to remove the obstruction. Coincidentally, the Court decided to de-obstruct, and threw away the use of “substantive due process” to invalidate federal programs.
In the decades since that paradigm shift, the Democrats have consistently been supporters of a “top-down” strategy for solving the country’s important issues. Whenever it becomes apparent that some or all of the states are not dealing effectively with an issue, Democrats seek a federal resolution. Civil rights, education, poverty, transportation, interstate commercial uniformity, environmental protection, you name it, the Democrats have advocated federal programs to deal with them. In this, they are not always opposed by the Republican Party; it’s a relatively recent phenomenom that Republicans are advocating small federal government. Nixon, you will recall, instituted federal wage and price controls to try and solve the economic issues of the early 70s. Republicans also were in favor of national transportation schemes such as the interstate highways (they help business tremendously). Republicans also are not opposed to most interstate commerce legislation, as long as the business community sees it as removing barriers to smooth economic flow (that’s why your toilet has a limit on gallons per flush, etc.). But Republicans do tend to object to the idea of solving personal issues with federal legislation. Thus, they oppose extensive federal entitlement programs (though you’ll notice how they tend to soft-pedal opposition to entitlement programs that help out their core consituents, like social security and farm supports).
The interesting question is: are we about to see another paradigm shift?