A study in Education

At the time the Constitution was written, education was not even considered a function of local government, let alone the federal government.

But the Federal Governments Department of Education’s shaky constitutionality goes way beyond that.

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the things over which Congress has the power to legislate. Not only does the list not include education, while there is no plausible rationale for squeezing education in under the commerce clause, We are sure the Supreme Court found a rationale, but it cannot have been plausible.

Article 1, Section 8.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;

To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures;

To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States;

To establish post offices and post roads;

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;

To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;

To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

To provide and maintain a navy;

To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;

To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings;–And

To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

Philosophically speaking, the framers of America’s limited government had a broad allegiance to what some Catholics will call the principle of subsidiarity.

In the secular world, the principle of subsidiarity means that local government should do only those things that individuals cannot do for themselves, state government should do only those things that local governments cannot do, and the federal government should do only those things that the individual states cannot do. Education is something that individuals acting alone and cooperatively can do, let alone something local or state governments can do.

If you thinks us insane, look around… There are 10 private schools in Madison County, TN alone… The average college acceptance rate is 93% (view national acceptance rates) and the minority enrollment is about 11% of the student body; the student:teacher ratio is about 12:1. They do all of this with a lesser cost per student rate then public schools.

We should be explicit about our own animus in this regard. We don’t think the Department of Education is constitutionally legitimate, let alone appropriate. We would favor abolishing it even if, on a pragmatic level, it had improved American education.

We should be explicit about our own animus in this regard. We don’t think the Department of Education is constitutionally legitimate, let alone appropriate. We would favor abolishing it even if, on a pragmatic level, it had improved American education. But we are a small minority on that point apparently, so let’s move on.

First of all… How did we get here?

Well Charles Murray, a W.H. Brady Scholar, American Enterprise Institute, explains that the first major federal spending on education was triggered by the launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in the fall of 1957, which created a perception that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The legislation was specifically designed to encourage more students to go into math and science, and its motivation is indicated by its title: The National Defense Education Act of 1958. It marked the beginning of large-scale involvement of the U.S. federal government in education.

Supporters pointed to federal legislative precedents, such as the Morrill Act in 1862, which granted land to the states that they could then sell to finance the establishment of colleges, and the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, which funded vocational agricultural education programs.

Defendents contended that they were not interfering with the fundamental principle that states and local communities were responsible for the conduct of American schooling and institutions of higher education. Opponents maintained, however, that categorical aid, such as was proposed by the NDEA, would shape educational policy and would place the federal government in charge. This was not, in their view, a constructive policy on the part of the federal government. Other critics, such as the National Education Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, objected to what they felt was the narrow focus of the NDEA on science and technology plus the act’s reliance on the National Science Foundation university-oriented community for direction as opposed to the broader approach of the education-oriented U.S. Department of Education. In spite of such criticisms, the act was passed by Congress and signed into law in September 1958 by Eisenhower.

But the left was not through, the NDEA was amended in 1964. The words “which have led to an insufficient proportion of our population educated in science, mathematics, and modern language and trained in technology” were deleted, as was the reference to giving preference in student loans to those preparing to teach and those with superior capacity in mathematics, science, engineering, or a modern foreign language. Aid was now available for equipment and materials to be used in the instruction of an expanded list of subjects: “science, mathematics, history, civics, geography, modern foreign language, English or reading in public elementary or secondary schools.” One new feature provided assistance for those who were teaching, or preparing to teach, “disadvantaged youth.”

The federal government was now ensnared in education and but its origins elsewhere—they were in civil rights. You see the Supreme Court declared segregation of the schools unconstitutional in 1954, but—notwithstanding a few highly publicized episodes such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi—the pace of change in the next decade was glacial.

Was it necessary for the federal government to act? Maybe.

Segregation of the schools had been declared unconstitutional, and it was apparent that constitutional rights were being violated on a massive scale in every state, but with President Johnson’s Great Society programs that began in the mid-1960s, it was inevitable that the federal government would attempt to reduce black-white disparities, and it did so in 1965 with the passage of two landmark bills—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. The Department of Education didn’t come into being until 1980, but large-scale involvement of the federal government in education dates from 1965.

The cost has been astronomical. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was Title I, initially authorizing more than a billion dollars annually (equivalent to more than $7 billion today) to upgrade the schools attended by children from low-income families. The program has continued to grow ever since, disposing of about $19 billion in 2010 (No Child Left Behind has also been part of Title I).

Was all this worth it…. probably not…. there is no reputable evidence suggesting it did. Neither will we will not try to make the case that federal involvement caused the downturn. The effort that went into programs associated with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in the early years was not enough to have changed American education, and the more likely causes for the downturn are the spirit of the 1960s—do your own thing—and the rise of progressive education to dominance over American public education. But this much can certainly be said: The overall data on the performance of American K-12 students give no reason to think that federal involvement, which took the form of the Department of Education after 1979, has been an engine of improvement.



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