Obey the Constitution

The following is cross-posted from the National Journal’s Education Experts blog. This week’s topic: The Race to the Top program and the FY 2011 budget deal:

Having the advantage of writing this after the CR deal has been made, it appears that Race to the Top will get $700 million but still work through states. So no regional or direct-to-district grants, at least from what I’ve been able to divine.

Unfortunately, the root issue here isn’t Race to the Top – it’s federal involvement in education at all. As long as Washington spends money on education it will call the shots, whether that’s through competitions like Race to the Top, or rules attached to IDEA, or Title I, or student-aid programs. Washington will be the puppet master, and it will waste taxpayer money on programs that do not work.

We know this well from the four, wallet-emptying decades in which we’ve had major federal involvement in education. Yet we are still having the same, misguided arguments: Not whether Washington should be setting education policy at all, but what sort of policy it should set. And the two sides continue to come down, basically, to whether Washington should spend lots of money with copious “accountability,” or spend oodles without as many rules.

Both are wrong. The Founders purposely gave the federal government only specific, enumerated powers, and none of them include the authority to make education policy. And as I have laid out many times, the “general welfare” clause, the “necessary and proper” clause, the taxation clause – none of these gives Washington the authority to do anything in education. Only the 14th Amendment gives it a role in education – to prohibit unequal provision of education by states and districts – as well as Article I, Section 8, which gives the Feds exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.

Of course, the Founders didn’t give Washington only very limited, specific powers for no reason. They did so because they knew that the strong tendency is for government to be captured by small groups and used not for the public good, but the good of those who wield governmental power. Today, that means politicians often using “the children” as pawns to win political games – spending money to show how much they “care” – while special interests employed by our schools lobby and politick for ever-more dough, weak accountability, and hamstrung competition. And some wonder why federal spending on education has skyrocketed while outcomes have stunk.

We can keep on bickering about Race to the Top and other proposals to twist a few screws on the dilapidated federal machine, or we can get Washington out of education altogether. Both the Constitution and educational success demand we do the latter.