An Education in Bizarro Constitutional History

Last week, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) published a call in The Hill for a much bigger federal role in elementary and secondary education. His plans are loaded with flaws too numerous to dissect here, so I’ll just highlight one, depressing thing about his piece: his bizarro constitutional history. Follow Honda’s narrative and you’d think for most of our history the feds stayed out of education because of the Articles of Confederation, and a jerky little state called Rhode Island:

Inequity in education has historical roots. At its inception, the Federal Government lacked the capacity and the authority to take responsibility for public education. Before the Constitution was drafted, the 13 colonies operated under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states. Any state had effective veto power over any proposed change.

In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power. It was entirely dependent on the states for its money and had no power to force delinquent states to pay. In fact, Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention in the hopes of preventing any change to the Articles. When the Constitution was subsequently presented to the Confederation, Rhode Island refused to ratify it. To placate the states, the Tenth Amendment ceded broad authority to the state governments.

Consequently, as regions of the country developed their own public education systems, disparities opened up.

That Rep. Honda published this dreck is as good as any argument for keeping Washington way out of our schools, especially our American history and civics classes.

The Articles, for one thing, were weak on purpose – Americans were extremely concerned about concentrating too much power in the hands of a central government. Mr. Honda, however, sounds almost as if Americans somehow arrived to find the Articles of Confederation already in place and just had to put up with a bad situation.

Much more egregious – but also, I’m afraid, more common – Honda writes as if the Constitution does not contain Article I, Section 8, which purposely gives the federal government only specific, enumerated powers, and automatically leaves all others to the states and people. The 10th Amendment – which Honda asserts is what long kept DC out of education – does not actually change in any way what power belongs to the feds, states, and people – it just makes it more explicit.

Finally, very few Americans in the 1770s and 1780s would have even recognized something called “public education,” much less tried to give the national government “responsibility” for it. Back then education was almost entirely a family, church, and community affair, and most people wouldn’t have imagined anything different. 

Sadly, Honda’s piece is just further confirmation that many of our representatives in Washington care not one whit about what the Constitution says and permits Washington to do. That, or they really don’t know. Either way, it helps explain why the nation is in a world of hurt, and makes very clear that the obstacles to getting Washington out of education are very tall, indeed.