The federal government spends 7 or 8 percent of its money on education, and its method is typical of the federal intrusion into local matters: It gives money from the federal treasury to states and localities on condition.
The conditions are myriad, confusing, and usually ugly when they can be understood. Title IV of the Higher Education Act governs federal student aid, and it numbers around 500 pages. A lawyer for Hillsdale College told me once I would be unable to read it, because he himself cannot read it, for which reason his firm keeps a specialist who is the only person he knows who understands what it says.
For this reason alone, it would be a grand thing to get rid of the Department of Education.
Starting with Intermediate Steps
There are also some excellent intermediate steps Congress and the Trump administration could take. If one changed the conditions of the federal education money that goes to states, localities, and schools, there could be an immediate influence.
The first thing to understand is human beings are made to learn, and they desire to do it naturally. This means the job of teachers, like the job of parents, is to help children learn, not to make them or cause them to learn. Good schools are built around this fact. It also means authority over the schools can best be exercised by those who are closest to the students. What if the federal government required states to pass charter laws that delegated wide latitude and real authority to schools, not to the Department of Education or to state departments of education or to school districts? What if it relied, not upon high-stakes centralized testing as in Common Core, but in the simple fact parents and teachers are much more likely to care for students than strangers, even if those strangers are highly trained federal bureaucrats?
The chairman of our education program at Hillsdale College has written a series of standards that states might adopt for K–12 education. For each grade, they take up about half a page. If a child can do the things on that half a page, the child has learned a lot. Here is a way for higher levels of government to be sure that any money they give to lower levels is well-spent in education. It involves hardly any management of details. That is the constitutional model, the model that comes from our nation’s founding.
Liberalizing the System
To follow this practice would liberalize the system. It would mean there would be plenty of bad charter schools, just as there are plenty of bad schools now. But it would also mean there would be a proliferation of good ones.
Hillsdale College has helped to found 16 charter schools, with more coming, and they are all doing well. Everybody wears a uniform and signs an honor code. Everybody—indeed everybody in kindergarten—learns to read. Everybody studies mathematics at least through pre-calculus. Everybody learns Latin, history, literature, philosophy, physics, biology, and chemistry. Everybody is admitted by a lottery system. For the inner-city schools, care is taken to advertise only in the immediate area, to make the opportunity available to the children who live in poor areas.
The students in these schools make on the average excellent scores on the ubiquitous state standardized tests, and they do this without class time or curriculum set aside to prepare for those tests. They do very well even in relation to the legions of public schools that now take months to cram only for those tests, which means the students know little more than what is on those tests, and all the adults get raises and promotions if the students do well. That’s why there have been spectacular instances of cheating (by teachers and school administrators!) on those tests.
The kind of education going on in Hillsdale’s charter schools is not something that could be advanced nationally by a federal mandate. Key to the success of these schools is that the school leaders, the parents, and the teachers are all glad to be there and all help willingly to make it work. In other words, they are all volunteers. It is a partnership. Partnerships are cooperative, not imperative. If you force people who are unwilling to do something, they will not do it very well, which is the encapsulation of human freedom.
Hopeful for Many Reasons
The polls tell us the American people today live in fear of the government. Now they have elected someone new, and we will soon know if he is good. It is a simple fact that he has never done anything like this before, and very great people have found such things difficult. But I would be hopeful for many reasons.
One of the main ones is Trump wrote this on January 16, 2016: “The United States of America is a land of laws, and Americans value the rule of law above all. Why, then, has our Congress allowed the president and the executive branch to take on near-dictatorial power? … What is needed in Washington is a president who will rein in the executive branch and work with Congress to make sure the legislative branch does its job.”
President Donald Trump has said that these are his purposes. Pray that he achieves them.
Larry P. Arnn ([email protected]) is the 12th president of Hillsdale College. Article reprinted with permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.