The federalization of education

Diane Ravitch, author of the education reform classics The Language Police and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, is advocating national standards as a way to hold states more accountable for student achievement. She says that standards based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the next logical step in the standards-based reform that began with Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind.

It seems time for conservative watchdog groups like EdWatch to say, "I told you so." When EdWatch began fighting The Profile of Learning back in the 1990s, they were warning against the federalization of education.

After the Minnesota Legislature repealed the fuzzy process-based disaster called The Profile of Learning, Gov. Tim Pawlenty charged his new education commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke with developing new state academic standards in their place. As a member of Yecke's Social Studies Academic Standards Committee, I witnessed first-hand the good, the bad, and the ugly of standards setting at the state level. Good and bad, the process nevertheless was probably the most open and transparent in state history, with open meeting laws enforced, statewide public hearings, a Department of Education web site, and a then-new medium called blogs exposing the process for the world to see. Warts and all, it was a public process, a Minnesota process.

I would have very little faith in the U.S. Department of Education, Department of Labor, or any other federal agency charged with porting the NAEP into national academic standards, to conduct a national standards creation process with such transparency (setting aside the dubious merit of basing standards on the NAEP at all). The federal bureaucracy and education establishment would write the nation's standards, as they wrote the NAEP, with little or no citizen and parent input or feedback.

The states and local school districts, not to mention students and parents, would hand over an enormous amount of accountability to the feds in return for very little funding (in Minnesota, the federal government accounts for about 7% of education funding). A national curriculum would naturally follow national standards. School boards and state legislatures would be reduced to picking out paint and carpet colors, while keeping the bulk of the burden for funding and fulfilling a raft of underfunded mandates.

Conservatives have warned for years against the federalization of education. First of all, the states, not the federal government, are constitutionally responsible for education. Check out your state's constitution. Minnesota's says: "The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."

By its silence on education, the Tenth Amendment to the federal constitution defers to the states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Presidents have also warned against the federalization of education:

Diffusion of authority among tens of thousands of school districts is a safeguard against centralized control and abuse of the educational system that must be maintained. —Dwight D. Eisenhower, New York Herald Tribune, February 9, 1955

I believe this [the National Education Association proposal for a federal education system] is the road to disaster and the end of academic freedom. —Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1976

If you want to improve academic achievement in America, we don't need another failed reform by a bigger U.S. Department of Education, we need to get rid of this Jimmy Carter-era, 4,500-employee, $71.5 billion bureaucracy, restore to the states full control of their constitutional mandate for K-12 education, and let the funding follow the child.