Yesterday, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the first new legislation aimed at breaking down the prescriptiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a small step in the right direction, but there are two serious problems with it:
- It doesn’t come nearly close enough to the reform we need.
- Democratic reaction to it illustrates why it is so hard for politicians to obey the Constitution.
First the insufficiency of the bill. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would, essentially, allow states and districts to take federal funding that comes through numerous streams and apply it to different streams. For instance, if a state wanted to take dollars slated for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and apply them to Teacher Quality Grants, it could do so without seeking Washington’s permission.
That’s good as far as it goes; it makes sense, at least in theory, to let state and local authorities manage money according to their superior understanding of the needs of their communities. But that’s in theory.
The first serious problem is that, ultimately, Washington would still be dictating outcomes to states and districts. As the summary for Kline’s bill states:
The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will maintain monitoring, reporting, and accountability requirements for states and school districts under existing ESEA programs.
That suggests, at least as far as this bill goes (Kline has promised more legislation to come), that states will still have to meet all of NCLB’s rigid standards, testing, and “adequate yearly progress” requirements.
The next big failure of the bill is that it trusts state and local bureaucrats to do what’s best for kids and handle taxpayer funds efficiently. As many people have pointed out, that’s about as likely to happen as your winning the Powerball.
Finally, the bill fails because it keeps the same basic, unconstitutional model we’ve had for decades: federal funding of education — and associated rules — despite Washington having no constitutional authority to do so. That’s why the LEARN Act, sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), is superior to both what Kline has proposed and the A-PLUS Act that continues to make the rounds. LEARN would simply allow states to declare that they will not be dictated to by Washington, and let their taxpaying citizens, not education bureaucrats, reap the rewards by getting back the “education” dollars Washington took from them.
Unfortunately, a revolting tactic commonly employed by Democrats — but little different in odor quotient from, say, GOP attacks on war critics as unpatriotic — threatens to chill any effort to impose rationality on education policy. It’s the all-too-standard implication that if you’re for cutting federal education spending or even just making it more efficient, you’re at best indifferent to civil rights and, at worst perhaps, secretly a pre-Brown v. Board segregationist. As Education Week reports:
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the measure is “an offensive, direct attack on civil rights” that is sure to weaken efforts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority kids get access to educational opportunities.
“This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students,” Miller said.
This sort of rhetoric is designed to do but one thing: defeat reform efforts by all-but-directly accusing supporters of racism, or at least inhuman callousness. But notice what gets no mention: the Constitution, the thing that gives the federal government its only powers and includes no authority over education. Well, almost no authority: under the 14th Amendment Washington does have a responsibility to ensure that states and local districts do not discriminate in their provision of education, but the amendment in no way authorizes federal spending on education.
And let’s not pretend that current federal intervention is doing any good. National Assessment of Educational progress math scores for African-American 17-year-olds — the schools’ “final products” — did rise markedly from 1973 to 1990, which could very well be at least partially a product of proper federal intervention: ending de jure segregation. But from 1990 to 2008, which includes the age of federal “accountability,” we’ve seen at-best stagnation, with the 1990 average score at 289 (out of 500) and the 2008 score at 287. Reading is the same story: healthy increases until 1988 (but fastest in Reagan’s anti-fed-ed 1980s) and stagnation after that. Indeed, the average score for African-American 17-year-olds dropped from 274 to 266 between 1988 and 2008. Meanwhile, real federal K-12 spending more than doubled, rising from $32.6 billion in 1988 to $73.2 billion in 2008.
There is, frankly, no good argument for keeping the federal government in education. But we can’t even have a reasoned debate about that as long as thinly veiled assertions of racism and callousness are the the standard response to any downsizing proposal.
See this Cato essay for more on why federal K-12 education subsidies should be abolished.