Evolution of a Big-Government Nightmare

Published December 1, 2007

Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education
By Neal P. McCluskey
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 209 pages, $19.95
ISBN: Cloth 0-7425-4858-9 / 978-0-7425-4858-9 Paper 0-7425-4859-7 / 978-0-7425-4859-6

Neal McCluskey’s first book reads as both a historical treatise and a journal of current events–but the two strains are not mutually exclusive.

While McCluskey, a Cato Institute education policy analyst, isn’t the first libertarian to lash out against the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), critics will have a more difficult time challenging his diagnosis of America’s education system. The historical evidence he offers–in the form of a timeline “of trends … rather than following a strictly chronological progress”–marking government’s failed forays into education is irrefutable.

Along the way, he never misses an opportunity to reiterate that the U.S. Constitution offers the federal government no such authority.

Satanic Verse

The author’s assessment of American government’s first known attempt at centralized education policy in the mid-seventeenth century seems to sum up all subsequent attempts.

In 1647, Massachusetts ordered townships to form public schools “after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households.” It became known as the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” with proponents of the law claiming public education would counteract the devil’s commitment “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” However, the citizens of Massachusetts failed to adhere to this “legislative Lucifer,” McCluskey notes.

“The law was subverted because it failed to meet the needs of the people,” McCluskey observes. “Individual colonists and communities made the decisions that were best for themselves based on the reality they confronted.”

Good Medicine, Bad Patient

McCluskey’s ensuing analysis serves as an indictment of what lies at the root of the failure of unconstitutional involvement in all public education.

Far from the idyllic “little red schoolhouse” myth many Americans hold–of ideal institutions built and supported by tax dollars being the “bedrock of democracy,” McCluskey shows how curriculum controversies, social conflict, religious division, and even violence have been fueled by public schooling–right up to, and including, the current No Child Left Behind law.

At times, the author must feel as if he’s trying to force badly needed medicine down the throat of a critically ill patient who is flailing about and resisting–demonstrating all the signs of acute denial. After all the money thrown at and political fighting over government education programs, McCluskey forces the patient-reader to surrender and down his medicine in one huge gulp.

Mann-Made Nightmare

The medicine offered in response to the failure of our public education system to afford adequate academic preparation to so many students–especially our disadvantaged ones–often has been the wrong kind, making the patient worse.

Culminating in NCLB, the evolution of a centralized education system has nearly completed the frightening dream of its would-be designer, Horace Mann, who later became the first secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts.

Let’s hope this is one nightmare we wake up from before it runs its course.

One Government, Over All …

Mann supported establishing in the United States a national education system much like the one he had seen in Prussia–one of the first countries in the world to institute a compulsory education policy complete with national testing of all students.

Sound familiar?

NCLB dictates curriculum content, demands annual testing of all students, and for the first time puts government in charge of essentially making every public school in the nation accountable through state standards and tests. All that remains to complete the Prussian-to-American transformation is for the government to impose the same test on all students.

Like those early settlers, the states seem determined to subvert America’s latest flirtation with a one-size-fits-all government education policy.

Determined not to have their schools deemed failures by a federal imposition, many states have simply lowered standards, employed statistical gimmicks, and failed to progress toward NCLB’s deadlines for student proficiency in key academic subjects.

Parental Choice

McCluskey seems encouraged by the proliferation of school choice programs–and the courts’ protection of them–in recent years. Only by re-empowering parents, he argues, can the stranglehold of failing government-run education systems be broken.

“School choice … has flourished as parents have lost faith in politicians’ empty promises,” McCluskey writes. “Parents may yet regain power over their children’s education.”

Our nation’s founders adhered consistently to the theories of John Locke, who asserted that training future generations was doubtless “the duty and concern of parents.” By not even mentioning “education” or “school” in our Constitution, they also made it clear that, without a doubt, education is not in the federal government’s purview.

McCluskey could write many more books about that.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.