Schools Need Federalism, Not the Federal Government

Notice the main noun in “United States of America.” It is the word “States,” and it is in the plural. The States, upon declaring their independence from Britain in 1776, joined in a federation in 1781 through the document known as the Articles of Confederation. The States replaced this with the Constitution in 1788, followed by 10 amendments three years later (known as the Bill of Rights). The Constitution strengthened the federal government, but the States nevertheless remained in a federation.

I make this point to emphasize the distortion of the nature of the Union today. The Union is a federal republic. And the States are federated nation-states, which means that Texas is on par with France or Germany. This can be demonstrated in that Britain made a treaty with 13 “free sovereign and independent states” in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. 

The United States are not “one nation” as is often proclaimed. As a federation, the States are supposed to be different. They delegated some tasks to the federal government in Article 1, Section 8, namely commerce and defense. Everything else is left to the States. As the Tenth Amendment makes clear, “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.”

So I ask the question—where does the Constitution grant the federal government any role in education?

The answer is nowhere. Education is a State issue. It had been for most of the history of the Union. But like many areas of life, the federal government has meddled in American education, from kindergarten to the Ph.D. level. Federal involvement began in the Progressive Era and became more invasive with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Federal meddling in education has been enabled by heavy taxation. The federal government taxes at an insane level (thanks to Sixteenth Amendment and the Revenue Act in 1913), and then it gives this money back to the States—with a string attached. It is through this money that the federal government is able to regulate State public schools, as well as universities (think Title IX and federal grants and loans). The federal government seeks to control schools and bring uniformity throughout the Union. The States can opt out, but then they lose their money. Thus the federal government is essentially bribing the States.

All of this is to say that the federal government has no business in education. The Constitution does not authorize it, and the federal government’s involvement in education is therefore illegitimate. Moreover, the federal government is not good at managing education at the State and local level. That’s what State and local governments are for!

Hence all the controversy over the Department of Education (which was created in 1980) and standards such as Common Core. Nobody likes the federal government meddling in their business. The States don’t like it. The cities don’t like it. And parents don’t like it. Local governments are closer in representation to their communities and are better able to respond to community concerns. It should come as no surprise that the people pushing for federal involvement in education are bureaucrats who seek financial gain. 

Now this is not to say that States or cities should have public schools. I think education properly belongs to parents and therefore belongs to the private sector. Education is not the task of the government. However, when it comes to the Constitution (and common sense), education is a State and local issue—not an issue for the federal government.

This means everyone, whether they support or oppose public schools, should want the Department of Education abolished. Same for Common Core or any other federal standard. The federal government cannot manage 50 States. All it does is make education messier than it was before. And it seeks uniformity instead of diversity amongst the States. Schools need federalism, not the federal government.