Or take the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a $1.2 billion effort to fund after‐school programming. Again the intention is laudable, and proposing to end the program at first blush sounds cruel. But just as with student aid, we need to ask if the program works, among other things, before declaring elimination to be good or bad. What federal studies have found is essentially no positive outcomes and a negative impact on student behavior.
There is, indeed, little evidence that the overall federal role in education has been positive. While federal spending has ballooned over the last several decades, test scores for 17‐year‐olds — essentially the K-12 system’s “final products”—have been stagnant. In higher education, prices have ballooned and debt along with them, while the percentage of low‐income students completing four‐year degrees has remained tiny and credentials have been rendered increasingly hollow.
Even if programs work, there can be many morally fine reasons to trim or eliminate them.
One is how we pay for them. By constantly deficit spending we have been funding programs for today in part with money taken from future generations. It is hard to see that as self‐evidently the morally right thing to do.
How things are done is also important, unless we believe that the end — or even just good intentions — always justifies the means. For policymaking, the means must be the rule of law, and that requires obeying the Constitution. But nowhere in the Constitution, including the enumerated powers, is education mentioned, much less authority given to Washington to get involved. And no, the “general welfare” clause and other seemingly broad warrants of power do not give sanction to federal education programs. As James Madison wrote in Federalistno. 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.
Maintaining the rule of law is a major reason to object to the budget’s roughly $1.4 billion in school choice provisions. Choice is good, empowering families and communities to decide for themselves what education truly means and how they will get it. But outside of the District of Columbia, for military‐connected children, and for Native American communities, this does not make funding it any more the purview of the federal government than the myriad other things Washington does in the name of education.
The case for cutting federal education spending is powerful, with federal programs often producing poor outcomes with money taken from future generations and without Constitutional authority. But even if you disagree with that case, it is time to at least be fair: There is nothing immoral about it.
Indeed, it is just as focused on the good as are calls to keep the federal money flowing.