Monday, September 10, 2007

Federalism and Education

From this week's EIA Communique:

"The Constitution gives the federal government no authority whatsoever in education. The results of NCLB prove how wise the Founding Fathers were to keep the federal government out of schools." – Neal McCluskey, education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

I'm sure there are many lefties who would agree with Mr. McCluskey because they don't like NCLB. Keeping in mind the "successes" of Medicare, I wonder what their opinion would be of keeping the federal government out of health care :-)

At the CEAFU conference this summer, I fired off a fairly aggressive question to a speaker from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The topic was NCLB, and his position was to get rid of the law and give education money to schools in block grants. I challenged, "What's conservative about that? Where's the accountability for taxpayer money?" His response was that NCLB is a federal intrusion into what is clearly a state responsibility, so the best thing to do would be to end it. Also, we should just disband the Department of Education, which was created as recently as the Carter Administration.

I can see some consistency in his position, but not completely. If the feds are not to be in the education business at all, why collect taxes for education, skim some money off the top, and return the money to the states to spend as they want? Why not just get out of the education business altogether? That would be entirely consistent with federalist principles.

I've long seen the wisdom in this statement: To draw an analogy from metallurgy and apply it to political principles--pure principles may be more valuable, but alloys are more useful.

In other words, I would be more than happy to give up both NCLB and the federal Department of Education. However, I don't see the latter as a very likely possibility. So my "alloy" is to allow federal interference, since it's not going to go away anyway, and bind it to accountability (another conservative principle).

Interesting, though, is that EIA reports that some see the solution as exactly the opposite from what I do:

"But letting schools off the hook is not the answer. Nor is letting them go their own way. Instead of multiple measures, the discussion should be about national measures." – Washington Post editorial board. (September 10 Washington Post)

The Washington Post apparently doesn't believe in the "democratic experimentation" the Founders envisioned. Their solution is to get the federal government more involved. To some people, there's no problem that more federal involvement can't solve. A little federal involvement (NCLB) isn't enough, so let's have more!

There are a lot of lefties who, because they think NCLB is anti-public-education, want to see the law eliminated and, as justification for their position, say it's an unjust federal interference in education. Yet, is it not these people who want more federal involvement in health care?

Back to the topic. What would be wrong with returning the Department of Education to it's pre-Carter position instead of a cabinet-level department? What harm would accrue to education? Better yet, what genuine good has come from the Department of Education in the last 30 years? I can give NCLB a "good" mark not only because of its outcome (focusing attention on underperforming students and schools) but also because of its accountability provisions, even though I dislike the law on federalism grounds. Who will defend the Department of Education, and on what grounds?


allenm said...

Mr. Cato Institute isn't just wrong, he's so wrong I'm wondering if working for a think tank requires all that much in the way of thinking ability.

NCLB is an accountability mechanism to measure how well Title I money is being used.

It seems a bit unreasonable to expect that money provided to do a certain thing go unmeasured.

The only reason there's much of a controversy is that for the past four or five decades state and district boards of ed have been sucking at the federal tit without any need to demonstrate that they are doing with the money what the money was disbursed to do.

Once you get used to getting buckets of money with no strings attached the prospect of strings is pretty worrying and definitely unwelcome.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Not too long ago, in terms of airport security, a fair number of congresspersons were chanting the "the only way to professionalize is to federalize" mantra. And they got their way. How's that working so far? One might need only inquire of the many 90 year old white grandmothers subjected to intrusive searches regarding the professionalism and effectiveness of the feds.

Ronald Reagan was right: Government is the problem, and education is no exception to that general rule.

allenm said...

It's interesting how the swelling of the number of strict constructionists coincides with the enactment of legislation designed to see if federal funds are being used as intended. Previously lefties typically derided the concept of states rights as the refuge of racists, now it's clearly in vogue.

Mr. Lucchese said...

I get really tired of the strict constructionist stand, anyway. Our Founders would probably be shocked to know that the experiment they began is still thriving, but also that we pay so much reverence to them. They were just doing what worked best for them at then time. Why is it so hard for us to do the same?

If we decide that education should be handled on a federal level, which I would be inclined to suggest, then we needn't worry about how the Framers designed it. They were mostly home-schoolers anyway.

Darren said...

Then you apparently believe that the Constitution doesn't mean what it says, especially in the 9th and 10th Amendments.

If we want to change the Constitution, the Founders included a mechanism for doing so. Ignoring the words probably isn't what those homeschoolers had in mind, though.

Mr. Lucchese said...

I apologize for my lack of specificity. Of course, I believe that any necessary amendments ought to be enacted, legally and officially. Though I often wonder what the Constitution would look like if we actually wrote every change down as an Amendment. How long would it actually end up being?

Darren said...

Perhaps if we *did* actually enact an amendment instead of ignoring what's already there (e.g., the 9th and 10th amendments), we'd be better off--because we wouldn't change so much!

Enacting amendments was made difficult for a very good reason.