It's the night of the State of the Union address. President Bush ascends to the podium, waits for the polite applause to die down, and says this: "Education has never been a national responsibility in our country, and school systems should not be operated by an agency in Washington."
Not the sort of thing our 43rd president is likely to say? Too reactionary? Too paleo-conservative? Au contraire.
The cited words are those of the late Albert Shanker, erstwhile president of the American Federation of Teachers, spoken back in 1978 in opposition to the creation of the Department of Education.
Shanker was right.
Powers not accorded to Congress by the Constitution are reserved, by the 10th Amendment, to the states and the people. As it happens, the U.S. Constitution mentions neither the word education nor the word school. Doesn’t even allude to them.
The public's education is thus properly a matter for citizens and their elected officials at the state and local level. Federal courts must ensure that state education policies do not violate the rights of the people, but Congress lacks the constitutional mandate to set those policies.
But it isn’t just a matter of constitutionality: Top-down central planning in education robs teachers of their professional autonomy and parents of their freedom and responsibility. It hobbles the ability of schools to cater to students’ varied needs, and prevents families from obtaining the kind and quality of instruction they seek.
The greatest thing George W. Bush could do for American education in his State of Union address would be to renounce unconstitutional and destructive federal meddling with the nation’s schools.
Step one would be to ask for the repeal of his own No Child Left Behind law that unconstitutionally substitutes the judgment of federal officials for that of parents and state legislators. Encouraging Congress to dissolve the Department of Education, President Carter’s post-election thank you gift to the National Education Association, would be a helpful second step.
But these are mere correctives. A State of the Union address should be forward-looking and visionary.
President Bush should therefore issue a wake-up call to the American people, explaining the harm we have done by delegating our educational responsibilities to ever higher and more remote levels of government -- from marginalizing parents to shortchanging the poor.
Our nation was not built on a foundation of federal, or even state-level, intervention in schooling. It was founded on locally operated independent and semi-public schools that were directly responsible to the families they served.
Even in the old semi-public schools, parents who were financially able were expected to directly cover some of the cost of their own children's education. This combination of parental responsibility and parental choice led to high levels of engagement. Parents not only hired the teachers in many cases, but selected textbooks as well. They had to take charge because there was no nanny state promising (however unrealistically) to relieve them of their educational duties.
The parental disengagement about which many public school teachers complain is an inevitable side effect of an education monopoly that gives parents no role other than to point their children toward the school bus in the morning.
Nor has our increasingly centralized approach to schooling served the interests of the poor. Though many inner city public school districts from Detroit to DC spend $12,000 to $16,000 per pupil annually, their performance is often abysmal.
The problem with these systems is not the monetary poverty of the parents but rather the poverty of our own -- and our policymakers' -- imaginations.
When given the chance, low income families make better educational decisions for their own children than state-appointed bureaucrats make on their behalf. Similarly, autonomous educators competing for the right to serve students are far more responsive to families’ needs than those laboring in protected monopolies to which students are automatically assigned.
Numerous studies have found this to be true, both in America's small parental choice plans and in larger programs operating abroad. A recent Cato Institute paper by professors James Tooley and Pauline Dixon found that parent-chosen independent schools in some of the poorest slums and rural villages of the third world are outperforming the local government schools -- and at a fraction of the cost.
Poverty is not a sign of parental incompetence. Conversely, by locking America's low-income population into an inflexible government monopoly, we have willfully perpetuated an economic and educational underclass.
The president should exhort his fellow citizens to right these wrongs, and to re-take control over their children's education. He should ask them, though their state representatives, to pass legislation empowering all families to choose the independent or government schools they deem best.
Until that happens, the Union’s educational systems will remain in a sorry state indeed.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.