Book notes: Feds in the Classroom

What should the policy of the U.S. government be towards education? For the most part, says Neal. P. McCluskey, it’s a simple one: Butt out. McCluskey elaborates in his book Feds in the Classroom, published in 2007.

Here are some point he makes in the book.

Chapter 1, “From the first settlers to the fifties,” starts with the earliest settlers in the New World and continues through Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. One of the key points of this chapter is the fact that early settlers valued education but not necessarily schooling. Their approach gave way over time to the centralizing tendencies of Horace Mann and then professional (that is to say, bureaucratic) schools. This evolution took place over many decades, and at different rates throughout the country. Another point is that there have many different purposes projected for education, including preparing good Christians and workers for an increasing number of factories. A third point is that as schools became larger and more centralized, cultural conflicts arose among different groups over ethnic, religious, and other lines. Finally, blacks were systematically and widely harmed or at best ignored by public policies concerning education.

Chapter 2, “Rise of the feds,” describes how federal spending on education (and later, influence in) education took off under LBJ. A law known as ESEA enacted “Title I” and other programs. ESEA has been revisited several times since then, most recently, as No Child Left Behind. Federal involvement continued to grow during the years of Nixon (federal courts mandated busing to achieve racial integration), Carter (a new Department of Education), Reagan (his secretary of education undermined his promise to abolish the department, and published A Nation at Risk, which led to even more federal involvement), Bush 41 and Bill Clinton (Goals 2000), and finally, Bush 43 (No Child Left Behind). Yet as centralization continued apace, the 1990s saw several developments that would partly decentralize education: Charter schools grew from scratch; Cleveland launched a voucher program, and homeschooling came out of the legal shadows, where it had been in many states.

Chapter 3, “No Child Left Behind,” describes how this large and influential law came into being, and what it does.  One lesson is that “the political calculus of Washington almost always produces results in education that end up helping the special interests who make their livelihoods off the system, not the parents and children public schooling is supposed to serve.” An interesting fact from the chapter is that the National Conference of State Legislatures criticized NCLB as a violation of the Tenth Amendment. The chapter also discusses a key Supreme Court case that affirmed that voucher programs do not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Chapter 4, “The reckoning,” compares increases in federal spending with changes in student achievement. By 2005, inflation-adjusted federal spending grew to at least 7 times its size in 1965. What have we gotten in return? Not much. Most federal programs in education have grown, despite the fact–or perhaps, in the twisted logic of politics, because–they have failed to deliver. While sympathetic to the belief that there’s more to education than can be measured by standardized tests, the author considers and dismisses various explanations for stagnant test scores, including insufficient funding, an increase in the “unteachability” of students, and “Baumol’s Disease,” which posits that increased productivity in services is, if not impossible, very hard to achieve. A final point in the chapter is that even when legally required evaluations of new programs are conducted, negative evaluations of those programs does not kill them. Indeed, failing programs keep receiving more money.

Chapter 5, “Enforce the Constitution,” argues that there is (aside from schooling military dependents, providing for education in Washington, DC,  and enforcing civil rights) little or no constitutional justification for a federal role in education. Even when judged by rationales offered in federal law–that federal involvement is required due to academic emergencies, to promote educational excellence, and to promote national competitiveness–federal programs fail. This chapter discusses the various programs justified under ESEA, among other laws. A proper understanding of the U.S. Constitution affirms that the founders meant for education to be the province of states, communities, and families, an understanding that has been changed not through the constitutionally mandated process of amending the Constitution, but through executive power and laws laid down by Congress.

Chapter 6, “How the Judiciary Found a Federal Role,” explains the concept of judicial review (if you don’t remember Marbury v. Madison, here’s your review). Race, however, is the key. The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted after the Civil War to ensure that states would not deny constitutional rights to newly freed slaves. FDR’s court-packing scheme comes into play, too, with the result that courts removed many previously understood roadblocks to government action. Race again came to the fore with Brown v. Board of Education (the 1950s) and then rulings requiring not only the end to the law of segregation but also laws requiring busing to achieve integration. In the 1990s, however, the courts backed away from mandatory busing. On religion, the author says that the courts have gotten it right, forbidding both the establishment of religion (school prayer, among other decisions) and laws that forbid the free exercise of religion. Unfortunately, the courts have let Congress bully states by passing laws and then withholding money from non-compliant states, a practice that has been used to, among other things, impose a national drinking age and a national speed limit. States are free to refuse federal money (and thus, federal strings), but that doesn’t keep their residents from having to pay federal taxes to support programs legislators don’t like.

Chapter 7, “No G Men Need Apply” is an argument against national standards. Progressive educators have taken sway over an increasingly centralized approach to education. Traditionalists, by contrast, are content (and in some cases eager) to keep a top-down approach, as long as they are the ones who get to control it. The author, instead, argues that “the millions of American students in tens of thousands of schools across the country are simply far too diverse for any uniform system of education to work.” He then asks, “who should control education,” and outlines a series of options, from worst to best: national control, state control, local control, and finally, parental control, through school choice measures. Centralization inevitably means increased clashes over the scope, content, and style of education. It also runs the risk of making small mistakes writ large. Some research suggests that decentralization has academic and other benefits.

Chapter 8, “Out of the Jaws,” calls for both state governments and the national government to scale back regulations and for states to create school choice options. But what about soccer moms who “form one of the most vehemently antichoice demographics in the country”? They should understand, the author says, that “the rot in system is not receding, but growing, and inching ever closer to their children.”

McCluskey thus challenges Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and experts of all stripes who think if only they were in charge and had more money to work with, American education would excel.

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