Op-Ed: Restoring Self-Government to Education

March 25, 2015

by Joy Pullmann

Indiana’s current debate over government’s role in education mirrors the national debate, which has resurfaced as Congress considers bills to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the central federal-education law. Republican leaders in Congress had to pull a vote on one of those rewrites for lack of conservative votes after constituents peppered lawmakers with complaints that the new proposal was too much like the old.

Republican leaders may not have noticed, but NCLB’s painful effects have undone the “bipartisan compromise” that created it. More federal direction over education has not increased student achievement, and everyone knows it. But it has introduced even more pain and frustration into U.S. classrooms. Schools now spend less time teaching core classes that don’t face federally mandated tests — history and science — and far more time in “benchmark testing,” or testing children every few weeks to gauge their trajectory toward the federally mandated math and reading tests come spring.

Earth to Congress: Parents and teachers have noticed what happens when you get your sticky fingers into local schools, and they don’t like it. If lawmakers paid attention to realities that economists uncovered decades ago, such as the information problem and law of unintended consequences, we could have avoided the present mess. In “Education Reform: Let’s Get It Right,” Dr. Maryann O. Keating’s recent paper for The Indiana Policy Review, we see the federal government’s limits recognized and applied to America’s current schooling system. Further, we see the limits of government itself, placed in tension with America’s historic regard for public provision of education as an essential component for a free society.

Perhaps the central difficulty about education, as Dr. Keating notes, is that it is what economists call both “a private good” and “a public good.” Education benefits both the individual who partakes in it and his community, especially in representative systems such as ours. As James Madison put it: “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” One of the great ideas of the American experiment was that people could rule themselves. And self-government requires moral and intellectual virtue. So early in American life, families and local communities established schools to secure and perpetuate the special kind of government they considered necessary for liberty.

At some point in American history, however, government and education, these two creatures of the people, got pretty big for their britches. They moved from functioning at the people’s direction into functioning at the direction of those previously appointed to carry out the people’s bidding. Education commissioners and lawmakers at all levels moved from being public servants to being public masters. Not coincidentally, during approximately the same era, the federal role in education began, despite an utter lack of constitutional authority for its existence.

As Keating concludes: “The increasing control over family and education is taking America in a new direction, away from the free association of self-governing individuals toward a society of obedient dependents who exchange their freedom and responsibilities for federal funds.”

This is a discussion Americans and Hoosiers want to have. We are realizing the Tenth Amendment’s wisdom because we live with the consequences of ignoring it for decades. Our state lawmakers should begin by putting exact figures to the cost of complying with federal dictates. They should re-imagine the possibilities for an Indiana education system freed from counterproductive micromanagement from inexperienced, ideological bureaucrats. And they should consider the many well-demonstrated civic, financial and cultural benefits of restoring self-government to education.

My children don’t have another decade to wait, and neither do anyone else’s.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of The Federalist and an education research fellow of the Heartland Institute. She wrote this for the foundation.

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