By having his minions in the Education and Justice Departments threaten public school districts with loss of federal funding unless they satisfy the far left’s fondest fantasies of a sexless society, President Barack Obama may have awakened many Americans to the need to disconnect education from the federal government. A clean break would be best; states could simply stop accepting handouts from the U.S. Education Department (USED).
No one suggests that would be easy. USED spending has ballooned in inflation-adjusted dollars from $4.5 billion in 1965—the year President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed—to more than $40 billion in 2016. However, states and localities would have huge savings in federal compliance costs to help offset the loss of grants. A Heritage Foundation study in 2007 found bureaucratic costs whittled a $1,500 per-child federal Title I grant to effectively just $554 in Florida. Federal programs do more to create armies of bureaucratic paper-pushers than they do to help students or teachers.
As for parental choice, it is now more essential than ever. Its exercise must be free of any federal entanglements. What about the proposal floated by some conservatives to make federal education aid portable—so that it would follow students to schools of their choice? Forget about it. That would only enable Obama successors to rewrite applicable law and apply it to voucher schools, as the Obama administration did on May 13 when it decreed Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex applies to one’s “gender identity,” a term that does not appear anywhere in the law in question. Obama’s Friday letter constitutes a full presidential takeover of the nation’s schools.
That bizarre turn in executive lawmaking, which is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers, comes just as many scholars were celebrating the triumph of choice over centralization in U.S. education.
Paul E. Peterson, a noteworthy thinker and the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, will have an article in the summer issue of Education Next that concludes, “the Bush-Obama era of reform via federal regulation has come to an end.” Peterson prefaced that conclusion by asserting, “If school reform is to move forward, it will occur via new forms of competition—whether they be vouchers, charters, home schooling, digital learning, or the transformation of district schools into decentralized, autonomous units.”
That is a nice thought, but nothing is guaranteed.
Peterson cited tons of data showing federal regulation implemented under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and Obama’s Race to the Top program, as well as executive branch lawmaking established through NCLB waivers, failed to close the minority achievement gap or raise U.S. students’ near-cellar-dwelling ranking on knowledge of math among youth in industrialized nations. But the Harvard scholar buys too easily into Washington, DC officials’ conventional wisdom about NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They believe ESSA now lifts the onerous burden of federal regulation and frees localities and states to innovate. Actually, ESSA continues to mandate uniform assessments of students, empowers the U.S. secretary of education to pass judgment on states’ standards and action plans, and opens multiple pathways to new forms of federal meddling, such as through Baby Common Core—federalized preschool.
Now comes Obama’s reckless foray into lawmaking using his dictatorial letter, which could embolden future presidents to follow suit. Peterson’s conclusion that charter schools are the type of choice most likely to bring about a needed post-regulatory reconstruction of the educational system has become shakier than ever. Yes, charter schools have opened some cracks in the public-education monopoly, particularly in big cities that have given families lucky enough to win admissions lotteries an opening to better schools within the system. But charter schools remain in the governmental orbit, and some even receive federal start-up aid. They are not immune from decrees such as Obama’s.
The best bet to advance choice free of federal interference is the creation of education savings account (ESA) programs, which allow parents to elect to have their portion of state (not federal) subsidies deposited into an account from which they may draw to pay for an array of educational services—such as tutoring, online instruction, private tuition, homeschooling, or advanced classes at a university. Thereby, ESA programs transcend school choice; it is about customizing education for each child.
Since its start in Arizona in 2011, ESAs have spread to four more states and are pending in the legislatures of 16 more. If ESA programs survive challenges from the left, they could help bring about a vibrant marketplace that truly would secure the blessings of liberty in a post-regulatory era.