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Federal Opinion

Can We Identify a Principled, Limited Federal Edu-Role?

By Rick Hess — December 12, 2011 3 min read
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The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey has energetically denounced the slimmed-down federal role that Linda Darling-Hammond and I sketched last week, offering a not-unreasonable litany of complaints about federal overreach. (It’s amusing that Neal thinks I’m endorsing big government, given that most in education regard me as unduly harsh when it come to federal efforts, but that’s a topic for another day.) What’s relevant here is that Neal’s response also illustrates the problems that bedevil those who want to get Washington “out” of education. The biggest is that even Tea Party sympathizers have shown precious little willingness to get serious about putting an end to federal ed spending.

Conservatives cheerfully promise to “turn off the lights” at the U.S. Department of Education, but even the aggressive budget put forth by House Republicans voted earlier this year called for only modestly trimming federal spending on education programs like IDEA, Title I, and Pell Grants. Not even Paul Ryan, who’s admirably willing to take on Medicare and Social Security, has shown any inclination to talk about scaling back federal aid to education. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to see Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, or Romney actually promise to zero out (or even cut back) federal spending on student loans or special education. This isn’t all that surprising, since the public may have little use for NCLB but continues to support the notion that the feds can help drive school reform.

If conservatives showed an inclination to get serious about zeroing out the federal role, I’d be happy to weigh the case for putting an end to two centuries of federal involvement in education (recall that these efforts can be traced back to the Continental Congress’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787). After all, I’ve much sympathy for Neal’s desire on this score. However, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Now, this state of affairs need not prompt champions of small government to throw up their hands in frustration. One can seek to sharply dial back the federal footprint while maintaining that the federal government has an appropriate, specific role producing those public goods particularly suited to its place in our federal system. What are those? They are the four things that Linda and I noted.

First, when it comes to transparency, states have a collective action problem. There is both the problem of providing parents, taxpayers, and voters with meaningful transparency and the fact that state officials in each state have an incentive to manipulate performance results to their own advantage. More standard accounting and linking results to NAEP is a case of the feds providing a public good that only Washington is equipped to provide.

Second, when it comes to basic research, the market tends to underprovide. Basic research is a public good (see discussion from last Thursday) and is tough to monetize. The result is that, while the private sector is terrific at funding applied research, it tends to invest little in basic research. This is the division of labor between the NIH and the medical devices or biotech industry, for instance.

Third, even hard-charging state officials get tangled in decades of entrenched rules, regulations, and practices. The feds can help untangle this status quo by supporting officials seeking to throw off anachronistic routines but who must find ways to persuade skeptical constituents or union leaders to go along.

Finally, the federal government is obliged to ensure that constitutional guarantees of equal protection are observed. That said, this will ideally be pursued far less prescriptively than is the case today.

Anyway, it’s not that Neal is necessarily wrong to be skeptical of the federal role in education, it’s that he’s mistaken in imagining that there’s only one doctrinaire stance a principled champion of small government federalism might adopt.

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