Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Thought Experiment

How strongly do you feel about our federal form of government and the requirements of the US Constitution? To gauge your response I have devised the following thought experiment.

Let's pretend that the citizens of a state (let's randomly pick Mississippi) decide, either through plebiscite or through their elected representatives, that the state would no longer have a public education system. Taxes we be adjusted accordingly, and public schools go away.

Should they be able to do this?

And whether or not they should be able to, do you think any modern president or Congress would allow them to eliminate public education?


John Sanzone said...

Fascinating. Of course, there is no constitutional argument that could be cited. I think it would lead to a few near-unanimous congressional resolutions and probably something binding, "if a state doesn't mantain universal public education, it shall lose such and such federal funding...'

But I can't really see anything coming of it, especially if the plebiscite has taken such an obviously strong stance already.

Ellen K said...

In a pure democracy, the will of the voters is absolute. But even those wily Greeks made it where only the upper class males were worthy of decision making. And the Romans outdid them by making a patrican's vote worth a century (100) plebian votes. We have the same kind of thing when we have billionaires that spend their money funding in plain sight or under the table likely candidates that they can control. Constitutionally, there is no law that says we have to offer free education at all. That was a strong suggestion because our founding fathers believed that by educating the population, they would provide a more level playing field than their European counterparts. Now we defer to those who claim moral or ethical superiority, but we only laud education when it supports our agenda. So why should we have schools when we don't value wisdom?

Coach Brown said...

You can make this argument with nearly any law that is not directly stated in the Constitution, except for Article 1, Section 8:

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

I think there are a variety of methods that the Supreme Court could interpret the legitimacy of public education.

cowboylogic said...

I'm no constitutional lawyer, but the pocket edition of the Constitution I keep handy never once mentions education. Compulsory education, as far as I am aware, is a state issue. I was unable to find any clause which might umbrella the situation - save one. "...promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity,..."
It is a slippery slope we step on, when we decide to use the reasoning behind why the Constitution was written to explain the scope of federal powers.
A state would be foolish, from an economic and PR standpoint, to abolish public education, but I see nothing constitutionally requiring a state to provide education.
Would it ever take place under ANY administration? NO Way. Political suicide. And politics is all about gathering and maintaining power.

Darren said...

What I'm reading here, then, is that the Constitution is fine until someone does something "we" don't like--then the Constitution (specifically the 9th and 10th Amendments) is tossed aside.

MiaZagora said...

There is nothing in the Constitution that says the government owes anyone an education. I think at least some states probably should choose to abolish public education as it is now.

With K-12 and other distance learning programs out there, I can't imagine public school will look the same as it has always looked for long. After all, you could let the cream of the crop of teachers actually teach, and they would reach many more students without classroom discipline issues.

Public school will probably always be paid for by the public. As long as there are politicians, there will always be public education.

Mrs. C said...

People get all dependent on whatever system you set up, is the problem. We have a whole cadre of teachers, parents and students dependent on governmental entities providing education to the public.

The Founders would be shocked at the idea. It's a shame that this is such a hypothetical discussion. I'm even hearing educators themselves voicing concerns that when education is viewed as a "right" that they have to put up with all kinds of nonsense from students, parents, etc.

maxutils said...

One might argue that Mississippi ALREADY doesn't have public education.

But seriously, they should absolutely be able to eliminate it, and if Scalia and his twin puppets are the strict constructionists they clame to be, there should be no stopping them. And, quite possibly, the education system would improve, 'cuz if people had to physically pay for the education they received, they might take put a little more effort into it.

mazenko said...

Is this any different than the citizens of a state deciding, either through plebiscite or elected referendum, that they no longer want to be part of the Union and will secede?

The Founding Fathers, Jefferson leading among them, were profoundly enthusiastic supporters of a public education system. And in drafting the Constitution, they also knew enough to know they couldn't explicitly list every hypothetical.

Darren said...

If they were such enthusiastic supporters, one might think they would have mentioned it in the Constitution--*if* they intended for it to be a federal issue.

Yet they didn't.

And neither did public education become widespread until several decades after the founding of the country.

I don't think your facts back up what you're implying.

Cowboylogic said...

Mazenko, you are correct in that the founders knew they could not address explicitly list every hypothetical. That is the reason why they crafted a method of dealing with issues as they arose: amendments. If the people and their states, as a whole (75% of states), felt that the federal gov't needed to take the responsibility for a task or defending an individual's right, the constitution could be altered accordingly.
If we need to, we can make a change to allow the federal gov't to assume responsibility for education. Seeing as most states already address this situation (as is their right, granted in the Constitution), I wouldn't foresee any credible movement for federalizing the system, as long as states abide by their own constitutions. DC will just 'end-around' to gain control, setting up a judicial battle.

maxutils said...


They DID list every hypothetical -- it's the freaking 9th and 10th amendments!

The goal of the Constitution was to form a union strong enough to matter, while still allowing states to get things done as they saw fit -- they chose to give certain powers to the Feds because it made sense: you don't want 13 different treaties with France, for example. And, you probably don't want a military that will protect only Delaware, and not Rhode Island. And, a highway that connect Maine to Florida is probably in the interest of all the states. But why on earth should New York have any say in what West Virginia teaches? Or, for that matter, why should Illinois care if Californians smoke pot?

Leaving public education out of the Constitution doesn't mean that either a) the founding fathers didn't support it or b) that it was a hypothetical they forgot to put in: it means they cared too much about education to let the Federal government involve itself in it. Too bad we're not that smart.

Mrs. C said...

Jefferson supported the idea of public education in very limited form, if I remember right only to the equivalent of third grade. In fact, there are whole schools of homeschoolers that provide a "Thomas Jefferson" education to their children.

It is something that pops up on the blogs from time to time, along with "teaching the Trivium" or "Charlotte Mason method."

Well, whatever works for the child. :]

mazenko said...

While I am not arguing the federal government should control education, I would assert there is fundamental good that can come from it, and interpretation that the Constitution forbids it is more academic than practical.

Conservatives in the 1980s began arguing for the elimination of the Dept. of Ed., yet they were subsequently outraged when Oakland public schools sought to teach Ebonics. It was the influence of the federal government that prevented this. Additionally, as we argue about the condition of public education, there is much to praise about the way NCLB can leverage necessary change. Calls for national standards are also relevant, as every other industrialized nation (that our public and media and politicians so envy) has a centralized set of standards.

The Founding Fathers were not infallible. They also hoped the Constitution might last a generation, and they were so fearful of not giving too much power they didn't even want to maintain a standing military. They provided little funding for it. However, we eventually changed the Constitution (the ability to do so being its brilliance), and funded the government. Jefferson officially opposed, but clearly exercised, strong federal government. And he wrote extensively about the need for the government to support the public education of the people. He certainly expected the states would respond as necessary.

maxutils said...

I'm not seeing the fundamental good. No matter what, any Federal education program must overcome the inherent inefficiency of additional bureaucracy before it even begins to achieve good. Then, it must prove itself able to do something that states or cities could not. In the case of Oakland wanating to teach ebonics, I mocked it probably just as much as you did: but what came from the Federal pressure to prevent it? A local school district, which presumably had a reasonable understanding of its clientele, and presumably had their ultimate success as a goal, was prevented from trying something groundbreaking (and, in my opinion asinine). What's the worst thing that could have happened? The currently underperforming schools in Oakland could have . . .underperformed. What if it had actually worked? I know, it's a leap, but what if?

I'm a firm believer in public education, and a supporter of government run schools . . . but the more local and the less government involvement the better. Combine that with an effective voucher program (one that would cover the FULL per pupil spending) and the direct payment of school by parent, and we might actually have something.

Mrs. C said...

Mazenko, I agree that the Constitution does not expressly forbid public education. I hope I didn't imply that... only that the Founders would be absolutely SHOCKED at the ps. system as well as the goings-on in some of those buildings. The Constitution does not forbid quite a number of things, each one of which must be weighted by the people/government on its own merits.

I disagree vehemently with this idea of a "national standard," but leave that for another post.

DADvocate said...

We didn't have public schools for years. Constitutionally, dissolving them should not be a problem.

Fritz J. said...

While there is nothing in the Constitution mandating public schools, I doubt very much the the courts would allow it even though it should be covered under states rights which would give the states the right to support or reject public education. If the Supreme Court would actually do what it is supposed to do, Mississippi or any other state could drop public education. Unfortunately the Supreme Court has taken upon itself, in a number of instances, the right of legislation rather than sticking to jurisprudence.

So to answer your question, the Supreme Court likely would forbid dropping education, and even in the unlikely event they didn't, they would almost certainly allow the president and congress to pass laws mandating it which would be unconstitutional. Like so many other things they would rationalize it by thinking it was for the good of the citizens.

mazenko said...


We didn't have the FAA for years either. Should we get rid of every institution people couldn't foresee in the 18th century?

allen (in Michigan) said...

Well you can assert all day and part of the night Mike but the facts and the facts of history are against you.

As I've pointed out before the Constitution that you're so casual in breathing convenient life into pre-dates the public education system as the dominant education system, by a right, smart amount. That would mean that creating a nation doesn't require an educated populace, or at least a populace educated by a public education system but maintaining it does. Seems to me that between the two it's the creation of the nation that puts the greatest demands on a populace and thus on the degree to which the populace is educated.

And leave us not forget the model upon which the American public education system was based: the Prussian public education system which was overtly and unapologetically militarized and whose purpose was, overtly and unapologetically, to help build a modern military for a monarchy. Somehow that just doesn't sound like the wellspring from which to birth the organization which is to inculcate the values of a representative democracy. It might be fair to say that the nation, far from needing a public education system, may have survived despite the public education system.

Then there were the folks who supported the establishment of the public education system. The trade unions who wanted to thin out the competition in the job market a bit; the anti-Catholic bigots who must've laughed themselves hoarse at the prospect of forcing those rich Catholics to pay for all those poor, Protestant kid's educations, the industrialists who weren't all that interested in educating the populace beyond the ability to read a blueprint.

Every last one of those proponents of public education might have been red-blooded, Yankee-doodle patriots but they weren't interested in public education for any theoretical role in might play in educating the populace to an understanding of the principles upon which this nation was founded. They all had their own axe to grind and public education was the stone.

Fact of the matter is, we're in the beginning stages of the end of public education.

That unwieldy and idiotic political compromise, the school district, is starting to come apart at the seams.

The continuing strength of charter schools isn't due to a reversal of the Earth's magnetic field or the machinations of the Illuminati but to the inherent wastefulness and ineptitude that the public school district has come to symbolize. Charters provide a politically acceptable step away from that model but the steps won't end there because the charter school concept isn't politically viable even though it'll relentlessly supersede the school district.

maxutils said...

The standard for federal governance should not be, "Could the framers not have forseen it . . ." It should be whether or not it falls into a category deemed appropriate, because they took great pains to add two amendments that basically said, "If it isn't listed here, hands off." The argument that the couldn't have forseen airplanes doesn't make good Constitutional sense; the argument that airplanes are basically faster ways to get from state to state than federal highways (a provision granted) does. Therefore, yes to the FAA, and no to schools. No one yet has come up with a Constitutional argument that would reasonably support federal regulation of the schools other than the same old BS catch alls that the Supremes apply when there is no provision.