The words “education,” “schools,” and “curriculum” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution or any Amendments.  This is not to say the Founders were not supportive of public education. Many of them, most notably Thomas Jefferson, wrote in support of the concept because they believed that, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

Importantly, the Founders envisioned that the states would promulgate and implement policies related to public schools, which is why many state constitutions lay the groundwork for education policy. But today our education system is very different from the one the Founders imagined.  Despite the limits of the Constitution, the federal government has a heavy hand in education policy. This overreach is harmful to state autonomy, and impedes the flexibility of students and educators.

First, it is important to understand the Founders’ motive in keep education within the realm of the states. The American founding celebrated (and indeed much of American culture today still celebrates) individualism. We understand that each child’s mind is unique and the process of learning may be different from child to child. Not only that, but each state’s population is unique. Some states may see fit to include more agricultural classes; others may have little need for such a curriculum.

The Founders understood that the fewer decisions the federal government makes, the more decisions are left to states, local government, teachers and students.

But this principle has slowly eroded. The federal government’s role in education expanded incrementally during the second half of the twentieth century. The federal government led the way in desegregating schools in the 1960’s.  In 1965, President Johnson created the federal Head Start (preschool) Program. In 1979, President Carter established the Department of Education.

More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed by President George W. Bush, tied federal Title I dollars to state education policy decisions, and non-participating states stood to lose millions of education dollars. This is the main mechanism for federal involvement in education policy.  The Spending Clause has allowed the federal government to manipulate state policies through conditions upon federal money.

The Spending Clause, found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1, states, “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.”

Today perhaps the most influential (and most controversial) education policy matter is the Common Core Standards Initiative. It is a set of math and English standards for each grade level. Like many other education policy ideas, Common Core is a well-intentioned effort to raise expectations for students and provide a higher quality of education for them.

Defenders of the Common Core will say that it is not a federal program; it is state-led. Indeed, states do have the freedom to opt out of the common core standards. So far, 45 states have opted in, and five states have opted out.

The Common Core Standards Initiative is related to the federal Race to the Top program, introduced in 2009. Race to the Top is essentially a competition among the states for federal cash, $4.35 billion in total. In order to even participate in this competition, states must implement college and career-ready standards and assessments.

Most states clearly understood this to mean acceptance of the Common Core Standards. Only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota opted not to adopt the standards (and MN only opted out of the math standards). Even these opt-out states are required to develop other standards to participate in Race to the Top.

There has been much heated debate about the standards and their educational content. Criticisms include: The Standards are not rigorous enough. The English standards do not include enough classic literature. The content is politicized, favoring labor unions and universal health care. The content is not age-appropriate.

But a review of the curriculum is beyond the scope of this essay. It should suffice to say that all of this debate is evidence that the Founders were right: People from various states, cultures, and backgrounds should not have to agree on one-size-fits-all educational standards or assessments. Taking away this flexibility from states, even if only by bribing the states with federal cash, has taken us far from the vibrant and diverse educational system the Founders envisioned for American children.

Hadley Heath Manning is director of health policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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4 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    I’m not a supporter of Common Core; I’d like to see it crash and burn. However, I know that the states and, in particular the inner cities, have failed in educating their young. Education unions have a large role in this failure and the states and local school boards have no guts to confront the failures, the unions, or the breakdown of the family that likely is the true root cause of the failures. Hence, much like the 19th century slavery issue failures, the federal government has decided to intervene. I don’t believe for a minute that Common Core will solve the problems any better than the states and cities have because even Common Core assumes the problem is the content rather than the breakdown of the family and the failure to confront powerful union protection of bad teachers. Unless and until the root causes are confronted, even Common Core will be a failure after billions are thrown down its drain.

  2. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    the Federal Government dangles the carrot of millions in federal funds and most states grasp at the money. The mistake made by these states is that eventually Peter WILL have to be robbed to pay Paul. The corruption of the Federal government holding states hostage, “if you don’t agree to this, all federal funding will be pulled”, is too much for most states and they cave to federal pressure. Education, healthcare, Medicaid all operate this same way. Then several years down the road, when the Fed’s pull the money, because after all it was only temporary, states are left scrambling to figure out how to plug those enormous holes in their budgets. The smart states say NO to the feds off the bat.

    States must stand up to this blackmail; they must come up with ways to live with less and not be held hostage to an increasingly hostile federal government.

  3. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    I remember reading how after the constitutional convention submitted the constitution for the states to ratify, that the topic of education did come up and was thought to be an oversight requiring and amendment. But the issue was not pushed forward after it was pointed out that the federal government was free to create a national university in Washington, D.C., and by doing so can set a flagship standard for states to follow. So education was not added as an amendment to the federal constitution when the delegates heard this and were satisfied with the already-at-hand solution.

  4. Ron
    Ron says:

    Interesting point Ralph. If the federal government believes it has the answers to education excellence, it has its own business incubator in DC. Rather than creating a theoretical program for the entire nation, it should use its incubator to test its theories. If they can then show it works in DC, we the people might be more inclined to accept it in our neighborhoods. As it is, the DC schools are not models of anything we in the hinterlands might want to emulate.


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