Tag: state education

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned.  The guide will provide:

a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.

The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:

1)  The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot “charter virtual education providers.” Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.

2)  From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong – either up front or down the road – and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different “treatments” – to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service’s overall success.

3)  We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in “1)”, above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors.  We’re just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.

I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.

The Constitution? Not That Old Thing!

ConstitutionOver at Flypaper, Andy Smarick can’t figure out what the Obama administration thinks is the proper federal role in education.

A couple of weeks ago, commenting on a speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Smarick couldn’t tell whether Duncan was advocating that the feds be friendly Helpy Helpertons, no-excuses disciplinarians, or something in between. Yesterday, Smarick revisited the whither-the-feds theme, pointing out the frustrating contradiction when Duncan both praises local and state education control and blasts states for doing stuff he doesn’t like.

But Duncan isn’t alone in his fuzziness, according to Smarick, who says he’s “yet to come across anyone with a comprehensive, water-tight argument for what the feds should and should not do.”

I’m sure this is not the case, but from reading that you’d think Smarick had never run across a little thing called “the Constitution,” which furnishes just the “water-tight argument for what the feds should and should not do” that he seeks.  It also appears that he’s never encountered numerous things that I’ve written pointing this out. For instance, in Feds in the Classroom I wrote:

Because two of the sundry words that do not appear among the few legitimate federal functions enumerated in the Constitution are “education” and “school,” the federal government may have no role in schooling.

Ah, but what of the “general welfare” clause that comes before the enumerated powers in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8? Doesn’t that give the feds authority to do anything that is in the nation’s best interest? At the very least, doesn’t it break the water-tight seal against federal education intervention?

Nope. I give you James Madison on the general welfare clause in Federalist no. 41:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause confers no authority on the federal government, it just introduces the specific, enumerated powers that follow it. Among them, you’ll find not a peep about education.

Many educationists will think me hopelessly retrograde for bringing up the Constitution, although Duncan at least mentioned the dusty old document in his recent federalism speech. Unfortunately, he engaged it with all the courage and gusto of Sir Robin. But at least he acknowledged its existence – too many policymakers and wonks ignore the Constitution completely because it forbids Washington from doing the sundry things they want it to do.

But why shouldn’t the Constitution be treated like an ancient grandfather, a nice old guy whose utterances, in a half-hearted effort to be respectful, we acknowledge in the same tone we’d use with a toddler and then promptly ignore?

Because it is the Constitution that clearly establishes the bounds of what the federal government can and cannot do, that’s why! And because when we ignore the Constitution we get exactly the sort of government that is confounding Smarick: government that is capricious, often incoherent, and is ultimately an existential threat to freedom because government officials can claim power without bounds. See TARPcampaign finance, and executive pay for just a few examples of this last threat coming to fruition.

Which leaves all of the people who want Washington to have some role in education, but are frustrated by not knowing what else the feds might do, with only one choice. They can either continue to face inscrutable and ultimately unlimited federal power in hopes of getting what they want, or they can acknowledge what they keep choosing to ignore: That the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it gives the federal government no authority to govern American education.