Getting Cato - and Fed Ed Policy - Right

I want to thank Kevin Welner for giving the Cato Institute’s education people some pub, and I’m heartened that he thinks our ideas have a lot of influence with the Romney folks. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t. Why? Because if they did, Gov. Romney wouldn’t be offering federal open-enrollment, voucher, or even “neovoucher” proposals. He would be calling to get the federal government out of education, which is exactly what I and my colleagues have long advocated.

Do we like school choice? Absolutely, because logic and mounds of evidence strongly suggest that it works. But that does not mean we want the federal government to impose or “incentivize” it.

There are myriad reasons for this, even though it requires resisting the powerful temptation to have the federal government impose a policy we like in one fell swoop rather than going through the hard work of having individual states and districts adopt it.

First and foremost, we oppose federal involvement because the Constitution doesn’t give Washington authority to meddle in education outside of its 14th Amendment duty to prohibit state and district discrimination, and its jurisdiction over federal lands and DC itself. To press for what we know to be unconstitutional just because it would be politically easy would be to subvert the very rule of law, that which protects us from the arbitrary – and as the Founders understood, very dangerous – rule of men.

But the reasons for keeping Washington at bay are not simply legal or to avoid an oppressive dictatorship.

The fact of the matter is that no one person or group of people – even those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom – are omniscient, or even close to it. There are lots of things we don’t know, and we all make mistakes. That’s why it is never wise to give broad authority to a central government, even if it is utterly benevolent. If it does something wrong everyone goes down, and the human tendency is to do lots of wrong things. It is this understanding that backs the “laboratories of democracy” concept of states. Individual states can try different ideas, but others are free to steer clear of those that fail and run with those that work.

But aren’t state governments and districts prone to the same human failings as Washington, not to mention the same special-interest driven politics, misalignment of political and educational incentives, etc.?

They certainly are, which is why education policy people at Cato support school choice generally and education tax credits – which crucially do not involve public money – specifically. Given the numerous reasons that government fails, as well as the need for the specialization, competition, and innovation that government quashes, we understand that education would work much more effectively if government didn’t control the schools. But it is far better to let fifty states control their own education systems – including getting to experiment with their own school-choice delivery mechanisms – than to empower the central government to dictate one policy for all.

Yes, education analysts at Cato like school choice. But we’re also big fans of federalism and the Constitution, and when it comes to federal policy those things must come first.

C/P from the National Journal’s “Education Experts” blog.