Commentary

Congress Trashes Local Control of Schools

Say good-bye to local control of local schools.

Liberals and conservatives in Washington have usurped the authority of local communities to run their own schools. The education bill now moving through Congress with bipartisan support involves unprecedented new federal mandates on local school districts.

Among the most notable requirements are:

• The bill would require states to test all students each year in reading and math in the third through eighth grades and once in high school.

• If test scores in a school don’t improve enough to meet federal standards, the school would get extra federal aid but would have to change its curriculum and train its teachers.

• After another year of failure in federal eyes, the school would be required to let students transfer to other public schools.

• If the feds are still unhappy after three years, they could require the school to replace staff, turn over operations to the state, or restructure.

The bill also involves lots more taxpayer money, of course. To prove he cares about education and to compromise with Democrats, President Bush proposed $19.3 billion in new federal spending. The Republican-controlled House then upped the ante to $24 billion, and the Democrat-controlled Senate’s version of the bill sees the House and makes the total $33 billion.

There was a time when Republicans—and even some Democrats—complained about federal control of local schools. When the Education Department was created in 1979, many critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), for instance, wrote, “There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make-up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.’’

Such concerns were not limited to Republicans. Then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) predicted, “No matter what anyone says, the Department of Education will not just write checks to local school boards. They will meddle in everything. I do not want that.’’ Richard W. Lyman, president of Stanford University, testified before Congress that, “the 200-year-old absence of a Department of Education is not the result of simple failure during all that time. On the contrary, it derives from the conviction that we do not want the kinds of educational systems that such arrangements produce.’’

People even used to know that there is no authority in the Constitution for federal intervention in education. For example, an official government document made under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House in 1941, contained this exchange in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution’’:

Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

But the absence of constitutional authority for a bill doesn’t seem to bother many congressmen today.

Now that liberal Democrats have spent years using the lure of federal money to impose rules on local schools, conservative Republicans have decided to join the fun. This expansion of federal power over schools was sponsored by President Bush and introduced in the House by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), with many leading conservatives as co- sponsors. And then conservatives added their own micro- management of local schools. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Van Hilleary (R- Tenn.) proposed an amendment to the education bill that would deny federal funds to school districts that exclude the Boy Scouts from meeting on school property. They ’re miffed at critics who challenge the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of homosexuals. So much for conservatives’ defense of local control of schools.

On the other side, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), never previously shy about federal mandates on local governments, complains that the Helms amendment is a “slap in the face” to local control of schools. Sen. Patty Murray (D- Wash.), likewise a backer of federal imperialism, complains that, “this amendment is about imposing a federal mandate on local schools.”

The most laughable aspect of this depressing tale is the pretentious titles that members of Congress gave to their bloated and meddlesome education bills: in the Senate, the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act; in the House, the No Child Left Behind Act. If only words could fix the schools.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of “Liberating Schools.”