What Constitution? What Monopoly? What Failure?

Yesterday, Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute offered some less-than-sage education advice to majority-hungry congressional Republicans. They implored them not to “reflexively revert to weary old themes that emphasize states’ rights, local control, and parental choice—and tell Uncle Sam to basically butt out.” In other words, they strongly advise ignoring (1) the Constitution, (2) decades of failed federal education efforts, and (3) the inherent hopelessness of government monopolies. 

Just in case some in the GOP are inclined to take these very ill-considered suggestions, perhaps a few reminders are in order.

First, the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to interfere in education other than to prohibit discriminatory state or district provision of schooling. I direct both the GOP and Messrs. Finn and Petrilli to Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution so that they can see firsthand that among the federal government’s specific, enumerated powers there is nothing about education. That means that the feds must “butt out.” And please, don’t cry “general welfare clause” – it just explains why the specific powers are given and confers no power itself.

Next, remember that the federal government has been heavily involved in elementary and secondary education since 1965. And what have we gotten for it? This:

Of course, as Finn and Petrilli point out, districts and states bear a lot of responsibility for our dismal otucomes, too. But why does that mean we should hand Washington more power? Given that all levels of government have failed, it seems the problem isn’t district or state government, but government itself!  That’s right: A government schooling monopoly tends to be controlled by the people employed by it – the people who have the greatest incentive to be involved in education politics and the easiest ability to organize – and what they naturally want is more money and little or no accountability.

So government control of education at any level is the problem. Which means that educational freedom – taking power away from government and returning it to parents – is probably the solution.

But wait, say Finn and Petrilli, we like choice, but “there isn’t nearly enough of it” and “a lot of parents…make mediocre education choices and then stubbornly persist with them.” Of course, one reason there isn’t nearly enough choice is that rather than fighting for it, far too many people waste precious time and money tinkering with a socialist system that cannot be fixed. Moreover, because we are dealing with a government monopoly, there are very few choices out there, and those that exist don’t have to be all that great to furnish something better than the alternative. Create a free market in education, however, and you’d get competition, which would spur innovation, which would lead to ever-improving options for everyone! It would essentially take education from a “very nice” gulag to an iPod world.

So please, GOP, I beg you: Don’t listen to Finn and Petrilli. Stick with those “weary old themes,” and absolutely do tell Uncle Sam to butt out.