Federal Opinion

The Federalism Debate

By Robert Gordon — March 14, 2006 7 min read
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—Patti Raine


The debate over federalism in education once followed a simple storyline: Liberals wanted a strong federal role, and conservatives supported “states’ rights.” The No Child Left Behind Act scrambled those sides. A Republican president championed massive new federal demands on schools, and some Democrats, like Howard Dean, derided the federal invasion of local authority.

The confusion will continue, as attention moves to another controversial idea: revising the No Child Left Behind law to establish national standards and tests. The loudest proponents of this idea are conservative accountability advocates such as Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch. But the progressive Center for American Progress, where I work, also supports national standards. The old right, when it engages, is sure to be apoplectic.

It isn’t only education that has mixed up the teams. The Bush administration has recently tried to override state prerogatives on issues as diverse as end-of-life medical treatment, the definition of marriage, and tort law. Many liberals have sharply criticized all of these efforts in the terms conservatives once used: Washington is “overreaching” on “state issues.”

Emerson said that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Is consistency in federalism the hobgoblin of little policy wonks? Or, more to the point, is federalism a ploy rather than a principle, invoked in service of other ends rather than valued for its own sake?

No to both. Details matter. There are good reasons for assigning some roles, but not others, to each layer of government. The right results depend on a complex of moral, legal, and practical judgments. Those judgments support national standards in education—even as they undercut many of President Bush’s other nationalization initiatives.

The Values Dimension. When the nation is divided on a controversial moral question, state control can satisfy local majorities. If most Oregonians believe in euthanasia, for example, that’s an argument for letting them have euthanasia—without imposing the same law in Alabama. But it is hard to imagine that different state education standards reflect different state attitudes. According to Ms. Ravitch, five states have aligned their standards with the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ challenging ones: Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, and Wyoming. (“Commentary: National Standards: ’50 Standards for 50 States’ Is a Formula for Incoherence and Obfuscation,” Jan. 5, 2006.) These states appear to have nothing at all in common.

Is consistency in federalism the hobgoblin of little policy wonks?

National definition makes more sense for non-negotiable aspects of national citizenship. While it is hard to get too worked up if different states want different standards for barbershop licensure, Southern states’ Jim Crow laws clashed with America’s constitutional commitment to equal citizenship. Education, too, is at the center of national citizenship. As the constitutional-law specialist Goodwin Liu has argued, the place of education in our national identity was recognized in Reconstruction and reaffirmed when Brown v. Board of Education called education “the very foundation of good citizenship.” In the half-century since Brown, education has become only more important in a global economy driven by knowledge and skills. More than ever, the basic skills needed in Maine are also needed in Montana. Education also matters for national greatness: The more individuals learn, the more wealth they can create for America. So it is right for our national leaders to define core goals for public schools and to hold them accountable for achieving them. (And as part of the same conversation, it would also be right to reconsider a school financing regime that leads to vast funding inequities both within states and between states.)

The Practical Dimension. State control makes some sense when states compete to provide the best possible services. Such competition occurs when, for example, states modify their laws to prevent doctors from leaving for better practice environments. Here federalism provides some restraint on the kinds of abuse that worry tort reformers.

But the No Child Left Behind law has created downward pressure on states. It demands that states enable virtually all students to achieve “proficiency” by 2014, but then fails to define what “proficiency” means. This is like a parent demanding that her child get a 95 percent on her next math test, but then saying she can take the test in calculus, or algebra, or arithmetic. States have maximized their scores by defining proficiency down. That foils the law’s core goals of encouraging excellence and holding schools accountable for achieving it.

National standards could encourage the right kind of competition. If the federal government rewarded states that improved their performance, states would seek to outbid each other to recruit teachers and offer extracurricular enrichment. That’s the race to the top we want.

State control also makes sense when states can teach us new things as “laboratories of democracy.” Many people in principle support a broad right to die, but worry that legalizing assisted suicide will bring terrible pressure on sick patients to end their own lives. Oregon is testing that proposition.

The No Child Left Behind law has already limited state variation by requiring testing and defining adequate yearly progress. That reduction in experimentation is a loss that can only be justified by better outcomes and more transparency. But the law hasn’t achieved its own promise of transparency: Because of different state standards, policymakers, administrators, and parents aren’t able to compare the performance of schools across states—or states against each other. National standards could produce more learning than federalism.

Without yielding many of federalism’s benefits, the No Child Left Behind law still has its typical cost: waste. We now spend more than half a billion dollars a year on tests required by the federal legislation. Much of that money is spent on variations of the same test. Yet a new report from Education Sector finds that even $500 million is not nearly enough to ensure that 50 states’ tests measure high-level skills rather than memorization. (“U.S. Should Do More to Aid States in Developing Tests, Report Says,” Feb. 1, 2006.) The weakness of the current tests fuels the most serious objections to No Child Left Behind. The same $500 million could help fund a single set of national tests far better than any we now have.

Without yielding many of federalism’s benefits, the No Child Left Behind law still has its typical cost: waste.

The biggest practical concern about national standards is also the simplest: that the federal government will blow it. That’s reasonable, especially under an administration that seems to live from debacle to debacle, from Katrina response to prescription-drug benefit. A bad testing regime in Utah ruins standards in Utah, but a bad national system can ruin them for everyone.

But this practical concern should be met by practical responses, of the sort our government has regularly used. Although states should be encouraged through financial incentives to adopt standards, there should remain an opportunity to opt out. An apolitical institution like the National Academies should be responsible for developing standards and tests. Generous funding should be provided to develop standards and tests that measure the high-level capacities we want schools to foster. And any standards should be tested locally before being implemented nationally. Under enormous public scrutiny, the standards-setting process can succeed.

The Political Issue. If the risk of uniformity is the biggest practical concern, the biggest political problem is a sound bite: National standards means a “national school board.” But already today, establishing standards isn’t a local school board function. It is a state function—and must be, if the standards are to be uniform statewide. Keeping the definition of standards in an out-of-touch state capital, rather than an out-of-touch national capital, hardly adds to community involvement.

There is no contradiction between setting broad goals nationally and giving communities more freedom to achieve those goals. So if we want to foster genuine local control of schools, there is plenty we could do—from expanding charter schools, to encouraging more parental involvement, to bringing more decisionmaking about personnel within the schoolhouse. Today, one obstacle to sound community engagement is the shortage of good information about how educators are performing. National standards and tests would help supply that information. If national standards can facilitate community control, there may be something here for everybody.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Federalism Debate


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