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'No Role at All'

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By Sheldon Richman

What should the federal government's role in education be? The quick and sensible answer is: no role at all. Let me explain.

Since we are inquiring about the federal role, it is appropriate to begin with the Constitution, which sets out the powers of the federal government. Most people operate on the "feel good" theory of constitutional interpretation: If they want the national government to do something, they feel the Constitution must permit it.

The Constitution was not always interpreted that way. In earlier days, if you suggested that the federal government do something, people would ask exactly where the Constitution authorized the power. In inaugural addresses, presidents once hastened to assure the American people that they would respect constitutional limits.

That attitude stemmed from the fact that James Madison's Constitution created a government whose powers were, in his words, "few and defined." Article 1, section 8 sets out the matters on which Congress may legislate and spend money. If a power was not enumerated, it did not belong to the national government. As if to say "and we mean it," the first Congress adopted the 10th Amendment, which says that any powers not delegated to the national government are reserved to the people or the states.

Limiting government power is what a constitution is supposed to do. One that did not limit power would be a contradiction in terms. A government that defines its own powers is not a constitutional government. It's a menace. George Washington reportedly said, "Government is not reason or eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master."

With that as background, let us consider the proper role for the national government in education. First, note that the word education appears nowhere in the Constitution. I was recently on a television show with Assistant Education Secretary Gerald N. Tirozzi, who himself pointed that out. I told him that meant that every penny spent by the U.S. Department of Education is unconstitutional. He disagreed, saying it only meant the national government could not impose anything on the local school districts. I submit he is wrong. If we understand the Constitution as Madison understood it, we must conclude that the document's silence on education means that the national government may have nothing at all to do with it.

Some people look for rationalization of a national education policy in the "general welfare" clause of the Constitution. But, that won't work. Madison explained what that clause means: "With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators." In other words, the clause says that in exercising its enumerated powers, Congress must act for the welfare of all, not for the welfare of particular interests. The clause defines the context. It is not a blank check.

The formidable constitutional case against a national education policy should be enough to close the discussion. Unfortunately, for many people, including, alas, many teachers, the Constitution is of antiquarian interest only. So, let us look at some nonconstitutional arguments against a national education policy.

Last year, the California superintendent of public instruction went before the people of her state and made a startling confession. A 10-year experiment the state had approved in reading and math instruction had failed. "What we made was an honest mistake," said Superintendent Delaine Eastin. For 10 years, millions of children were subjected to that mistake. According to The Sacramento Bee, "Eastin's announcement came as she released the findings of her task forces on reading and math, commissioned last April after state test results showed that the vast majority of California public school students are unable to read, write, or compute at levels considered proficient."

What is the lesson here? It is this: Centralized decisionmaking--whether state or federal--is bad. In this case, state government made key decisions for every child in the state. When it goofed, many suffered. The smaller the decisionmaking unit, the fewer who will suffer from error. More important, the smaller the unit, the better the chances that good ideas will be discovered, because more problem-solvers--every parent, not just bureaucrats--will be searching for them.

If decisionmaking at the state level can lead to such disasters, imagine the potential scope of disaster when the national government makes decisions. I know the standard response: The national government does not impose policies on the states and localities; programs such as Goals 2000 are voluntary. That misses the point. If the national government dispenses money (which most states and school districts are happy to take) and commissions standards, it inevitably has a centralizing effect. Local schools will look more alike if the national government has a role than if it does not. Liberals and conservatives think that's great. They like the idea of national standards. But a California goof is waiting to happen on a national scale.

What is the alternative? Move ultimate decisionmaking much closer to the people. For some, that might mean turning education over to the states or localities. That is not close enough. The scope of error is still too big, the potential for violating freedom of conscience too great. In a free society, decisionmaking and financial control belong at the family level. Parents and children, not school officials, should make the big decisions about education. Only one arrangement would permit that: full separation of school and state. Not vouchers, not charter schools, not contracting out. Full separation.

Before 1840, that's what we had. The result: a literate, dynamic, enterprising society unprecedented in history. In contrast, Secretary Richard W. Riley says we now have a national reading crisis. It takes a government to make a crisis out of an easy thing like reading. But that's what happens when the parents' responsibility to educate their kids is usurped.

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