Commentary

Obama’s Speech to Students Teaches Lesson About Power

The President of the United States wanted to talk to kids on their first day of school, and all hell broke loose. It was a political throwdown that has lots of people asking: How did we reach such a sad state of affairs?

That the president would even contemplate such a speech gives you a pretty good idea.

Depending on whom you ask, you get very different answers about the immediate cause of our national schoolyard brawl.

Many Obama supporters have been thrusting their fingers squarely at right-wingers, who, they say, hate the President and will stop at nothing to bring him down.

Local control of schools is one of the things that historically saved diverse Americans from crippling education conflict.”

“We have just gone through one of the most shameful episodes of the young Obama presidency,” wrote columnist E.J. Dionne. “Shameful because of the behavior of the right wing, shameful because the media played into an extremist agenda, shameful because we proved that our political system has become so dysfunctional that a president gets punished for doing the right thing.”

Critics of the address point to a different culprit: U.S. Department of Education lesson plans that came out well before the speech. Among many things, they suggested that students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president,” and made clear that students would be inspired by the president, no matter what. They also indicated that the speech might delve into contentious social issues, pushing “students…to discuss main ideas from the speech, i.e. citizenship, personal responsibility, civic duty.” Only one of those things fit a simple, “work-hard” message.

What created the igniting spark, though, isn’t nearly as important as knowing how we got to such flammable circumstances in the first place.

The answer is actually pretty simple: For decades more and more power has been concentrated in Washington, so reasonable people with legitimate disagreements have had to fight much more – and much harder – over what goes on in DC. The trend has only accelerated over the last couple of years, with bank bailouts, the stimulus, takeovers of Chrysler and GM, and potentially much greater federal involvement in health care.

Education has mirrored the trend. After more than a century-and-a-half of Washington keeping out of classrooms because the Constitution gives it no authority to go in, over the last roughly sixty years federal intrusions have built slowly, peaking with the now school-dominating No Child Left Behind Act. That means that until relatively recently no president would have even imagined giving a national, back-to-school address, and no one would have had to fight one.

But it’s not just centralization that makes federal politics an increasingly explosive tinderbox. After all, concentrating power in one place wouldn’t be a problem if all Americans had the exact same ideals, desires, and needs. Ours, however, is an extremely diverse nation, which has been a huge source of strength for centuries, but also dooms any centralization to conflict.

The president’s speech is case in point. Reasonable public-school parents who did not want their children exposed to potentially controversial proclamations or campaigning – or taxpayers who didn’t want to fund it – had no choice but to take action. Meanwhile, reasonable parents who wanted their kids to hear a potentially uplifting address on hard work and perseverance had to fight to get their districts to show it. The political upheaval inevitable.

So how do we deal with this?

One of the things that has historically saved diverse Americans from crippling education conflict has been local control of schools. Communities of often like-minded people ran their own schools and taught shared values, preventing lots of potentially disastrous confrontations.

But it was hardly perfect. Where there wasn’t homogeneity, conflict often ensued. Perhaps most striking were the 1844 “Philadelphia Bible Riots,” in which a heated dispute over whose version of the Bible, Protestant of Catholic, would be permitted in the public schools resulted in shocking deaths and destruction.

Today, as districts have become much bigger and power has moved up the governmental ladder, conflict is constant. Whether the flashpoint is Intelligent Design, multiculturalism, sex education, or just what day the school year will begin, perfectly decent people are regularly forced to fight.

To solve the problem, we obviously don’t need more centralization, though for several mistaken reasons some liberals and conservatives are demanding just that. No, what we need is the very opposite: school choice. Let parents choose schools that best meet their kids’ needs and desires and that share their values. Rather than forcing diverse people to battle over government schools, let them educate their children with the freedom that is supposed to define American life.

If we do that – if we cease forcing people to fight – we can put this ugly speech brawl behind us, and ensure that nothing like it happens again.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.