Sunday, April 11, 2010

The misguided race to federalize education

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" because, he continued, it's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before.

Pretty concerning quote. Acting based on a threat or a sense of fear doesn't seem very authentic.


David Davenport,Gordon Lloyd | SF Gate
Sunday, February 7, 2010

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan call their $4 billion program of education reform grants the Race to the Top. A more accurate title would be the Race to Washington, because their program culminates a stunning decade in which school policy decisions have been wrested from local and state control to become matters of federal oversight. With the possible exception of Texas - where Gov. Rick Perry is resisting federal education grants with all their strings - no state has been left behind in the race to federalize education.

It's easy to miss this important power shift because few of us notice, much less worry about, constitutional processes during a crisis. But, as presidential Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" because, he continued, it's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before. And that's precisely what is happening in education as we complete a transfer of money and power to Washington to oversee our schools, in violation of the 10th Amendment, a couple of hundred years of history and common sense.

There is a disturbing pattern of Washington using crises to consolidate power. First we declare war on a problem, which shifts things into crisis mode. Remember the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on illiteracy, the war on terror? Now we have a war on underperforming schools, so naturally Washington needs to step in and nationalize standards and tests.

It started when two former "education governors," Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, took some of their education ideas to the White House and now, in the name of spending stimulus money and curing the ailing economy, we spend billions in federal grants on schools, all with policy strings attached.

You could call it bribery, offering cash-starved states extra billions if only they would follow federal curricular standards and testing regimes. You could definitely call it unconstitutional, because nothing in the Constitution gives the federal government a role in education, and the 10th Amendment says powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the people and the states. Even the highly elastic commerce clause doesn't stretch far enough to cover education. To make matters worse, these federal grants are permitted to go directly to school districts, further eroding the role of states.

But beyond the constitutional question, why would we object to shifting educational control from local and state governments to Washington? For one thing, most of the promising experiments in K-12 educational reform - charter schools, parent councils or the creation of regional sub districts - shift power down toward local principals and parents, not up toward a more distant bureaucracy. For another, needing to win over local and state leaders one at a time slows the embrace of policy fads. For example, after the celebration when Sen. Edward Kennedy and Bush joined hands to "leave no child behind," we were left instead with a problematic testing regime now desperately in need of repair. Further, education experts who have examined federal education standards say they are more lax than the ones most states now employ.

One of the problems with education, health care, federal regulation of banks and executive compensation: It's an enormous expansion of the federal enterprise. And, like the New Deal enacted in the crisis of the Great Depression, it will never be turned back. The era of big government isn't over; it's just beginning.

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Gordon Lloyd is professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.

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