Thursday, January 15, 2015

On a Central Federal Policy in Education in the U.S.: Implications for American Federalism

In a speech in January 2015, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged a continued central role for the federal government in education policy. He said the president was proposing to increase federal spending on elementary and secondary schools by $2.7 billion; Congress had appropriated $67 billion to the U.S. Department of Education—with $23.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—in the 2015 budget.[1]  Typically, debate on the federal government’s role had focused on the use of standardized tests in holding schools accountable. I submit that a self-governing people has a duty to consider the wider implications, such as the impact of a greater role on the federal system. Otherwise, unintended consequences may show up after it is too late to do anything about them.

Federalism is rarely on the media’s radar screen in the U.S., yet this dimension can be detected in statements made by public officials. For example, in his speech, Duncan said, “If we walk away from responsibility as a country—if we make our national education responsibilities somehow optional—we would turn back the clock on educational progress, 15 years or more.”[2] In positing a responsibility as a country to education, he is claiming that national education responsibilities exist. This implies that the U.S. Government has a legitimate role. This is a contestable claim.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the powers of the federal government are limited, or enumerated, whereas those of the states are both enumerated and residual. Education is not explicitly listed among the federal government’s enumerated powers, but that government can spend money for the general welfare. Education certainly contributes to that. In fact, so many things do that reading “the spending clause” so broadly eviscerates (i.e., wipes out) the enumerating itself because the federal government could get around the list simply by spending money on an additional policy domain. Put logically, a broad reading of the spending clause contradicts the very notion of enumerating powers, so both in original intent and practically, the spending clause must surely apply to the general welfare via any of the enumerated powers. Spending on education is the task of the several states.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Education Committee, brought federalism to the surface in his remarks at the time, but without presenting a coherent alternative. Referring to the “No Child Left Behind” law passed while George W. Bush was president, Alexander said, “My goal is to keep the best portions of the original law and restore to states and communities the responsibility for deciding whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing.”[3] In other words, he wanted to retain the federal government’s role—making it better—even as he wanted to restore to the states and localities their responsibilities. Such cooperative or shared-competency federalism, while common in the E.U., runs up against the enumerated feature of federal power in the American system. Put logically, returning to the states their respective responsibilities would mean taking the federal government out of the education business. Practically speaking, retaining a role for the federal government risks further encroachment on the states.

Generally speaking, the more the enumerated feature of the U.S. Constitution is blurred or distended, the less the states will be able to act as a check against federal encroachment. The check feature of federalism can protect not only the states as viable republics in their own right, but also citizens from abuses of power on the federal level. Likewise, keeping the states from encroaching on the federal enumerated powers can enable the U.S. Government (e.g., the Department of Justice) to protect citizens from abuses of power from state officials. Civil rights during the 1960s is a case in point.

Therefore, the implications of education policy may be more important than the educational issues that pertain more directly to education. Keeping the implications on the system of public governance on the public’s radar screen is thus part of the responsibility of a self-governing people and its elected representatives.

[1] Caroline Porter and Siobhan Hughes, “Education Secretary Presses Central Federal Policy Role,” The Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.