Commentary

First We Take Your Money, Then We Take Your Schools

This article appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on October 23, 2006.

With the November 7th prospects for his party looking bleak, President Bush might already be turning his attention to his legacy, and recent events suggest that he is returning to his first domestic political victory: education.

In a speech last week at a Washington, D.C., charter school, Bush brought education back to the front burner, promoting federal initiatives to train 70,000 new Advanced Placement teachers, help pay the costs of AP exams for low-income students, and furnish vouchers for 28,000 poor children nationwide. The President also devoted his weekly radio address entirely to education, talking up the No Child Left Behind Act, the signature accomplishment of Bush’s first year in office, which is scheduled for reauthorization next year.

Bush’s education agenda, however, doesn’t stop at K through 12. Last month, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that the administration would also pursue new policies in higher education, including plans to track information on every college student in the country, and to increase federal financial aid. And that’s just the beginning. The Secretary will be holding a “summit” next spring to explore even more ivory tower reforms.

The danger of pushing so many education initiatives, of course, is that many voters who have traditionally supported Republicans despise big government, especially federal intrusions into their schools. That’s a group, as the upcoming midterms are likely to show, that Republicans can’t afford to lose. Which puts the Bush administration in a tight spot: Just as it is attempting to plunge federal tentacles ever deeper into the schools, it must also convince the public that federal control is the furthest thing from its mind.

“Local schools remain under local control,” Bush declared in his radio address, though NCLB dictates everything from how reading is taught to teacher qualifications. Similarly, in response to a question about the expansion of federal power during her tenure, Secretary Spellings recently insisted that “I’m a good Federalist and a good Republican.”

But the billion-dollar question remains: How can the administration hew to the ideal of local control while simultaneously advocating federal intrusion into the classroom?

They can’t. Either they stick to the Constitution and keep the federal government out of education, or they chuck it and run the schools from Washington. Rhetorically, though, the Bush administration is trying to square the circle, dodging the Constitution and asserting that because the federal government spends money on education – an amount that’s grown roughly 36 percent under Bush – it has an obligation to force “accountability” on the schools.

“With one-third of higher education investment coming from the federal government,” Spellings said recently, “it’s right for me as the Secretary of Education…to know what the heck we’re getting for it.”

Similarly, President Bush asserted in last week’s radio address that all “the federal government is asking for” with NCLB “[is] demonstrated results in exchange for the money we send from Washington.”

Rhetoric notwithstanding, if the Bush administration were really devoted to federalism – or even just plain fairness to taxpayers – it wouldn’t expand its powers over the nation’s schools.

As far as taxpayers are concerned, it’s bad enough that Washington takes our hard-earned cash. Should they also lose control of their schools?

And federalism? If you’re a “good Federalist,” you know that the Constitution doesn’t give Washington any authority to appropriate money for education or to run schools, much less to spend money on education and then use it to buy control of the schools.

Regrettably, the reality is that George Bush has not been a good Federalist. When it comes to education, he has repeatedly flouted the Constitution and expanded the scope of federal power. If he continues to do so for the next two years, his legacy will not be what he had hoped.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.