How the Federal Government Influences Education
J. Michael Smith, President of Home School Legal Defense Association
“HAS THE EDUCATIONAL
LEVEL OF STUDENTS
INTO THE STATES?”
In President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, he boldly asserted: “So tonight, I am proposing that every state—every state—requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”
HSLDA immediately alerted all the homeschoolers on our email list to the president’s outrageous statement and shock-ing attempt to force the states to align their compulsory attendance laws with his beliefs.
Clearly, federal involvement in education is a hot-button issue. We received over 90 emails weighing in on what the president said. Some people shared our outrage, some thought we were overreacting, and others felt that the president was just making a recommendation. Some thought we were reflecting a Republican bias, and others had questions about the process by which the federal government can influence state education policies.
How can the federal government, through Congress, have so much influence over education at the local level? Who decides how long children stay in school and at what age they should start? In light of the fact that each state legislature has already passed laws requiring children to be in school at certain ages, can the president or Congress force the states to also require students to stay in school until age 18?
This raises the foundational question: what is the federal government’s role in education? According to the Constitution, the answer should be “none”—Article I, Section 8 specifically defines what Congress has the power to do. Legislating education is not included in these powers.
Then how has the federal government become involved in education? The states are held hostage by the federal govern-ment because when they take federal money, they are obligated to implement the federal programs attached to the money. To this date, Congress has never imposed on states a condition of setting a certain compulsory attendance age in order to receive federal funds. But this is what many think may happen if the president’s proposal becomes law—the states will have to change their laws to continue to get money.
But if it’s unconstitutional, shouldn’t it be unenforceable? Shouldn’t taxpayers be able to stop Congress’s spending on education because such expenditures are not enumerated in the Constitution? Unfortunately, because education is considered to be so important to our nation’s well-being, it would be very difficult to convince the courts to rule against these expenditures.
I think that the only way federal involvement in education can be reduced, or at some point even abolished, would be to demonstrate that it has failed and always will fail to achieve its goal.
In a recent speech, Dr. Charles Murray, a political scientist with degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a strong case that there is no need for the U.S. Department of Education.*
He points out that major federal spending in education started after the Russians put up the satellite Sputnik in 1957. Congress reacted to Sputnik by passing the National Defense Education Act of 1958, authorizing federal funds to be spent for the education of children in math and science.
As part of President Johnson’s Great Society vision in the 1960s, Congress began spending more money on education in order to see that schools were desegregated and that racial disparities in opportunity were addressed. This spending culminated in the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1980, an engine that allows Congress to use mandates to pump billions of dollars through the education pipeline to the states.
So the question has to be asked: has the educational level of students improved since Congress started pouring money into the states?
Dr. Murray has conducted extensive research into this question. Using both national assessments of educational progress and standardized testing in states, he concludes that since the federal government got involved in the mid-1960s, education has clearly become worse. (It is interesting to note that prayer and the Bible were removed from schools at about the same time the federal government began spending money on education.) Dr. Murray has also found that federal funding for the education of the disadvantaged, especially minorities, has not worked either. As a matter of fact, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, educational results for the disadvantaged have worsened-the gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools has increased.
So, the federal dollars spent on public education have not only failed to improve education, but have actually resulted in declining academic achievement.
Dr. Murray’s research provides the justification for defunding the Department of Education. Congress has the power to defund the department by simply not passing legislation that requests funding. Or, a president who has the nerve could simply not request funding for education. Only time will tell if this will ever happen, but it is the right thing to happen for the good of the country.
Meanwhile, I want to thank our members for partnering with HSLDA to preserve educational freedom whenever it is threatened. When we stand up for the Constitution, we are standing up for the rights of all homeschooling families, of all parents, and of all 50 states.
* Charles Murray, “Do We Need the Department of Education?” Imprimis 41, no. 1 (2012).