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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

No State Left Behind: Education Eclipsing Federalism

Facing a federal requirement that every student be proficient in math and English by 2014, the republics in the U.S. rushed to apply for waivers in 2011 and 2012. In 2010, 38 percent of the schools had failed to meet their goals for annual progress toward the 2014 goal. The U.S. Secretary of Education thought that figure could soar to 80 percent. When a school fails to meet such goals, the No Child Left Behind law requires “a series of interventions by the district and the state that can culminate in a state takeover. With so many schools failing, “that threatened to create an impossible burden on states and districts,” according to Chester Finn, director of an institute that studies education. The waivers did not come without strings, however. The Obama administration pushed the governments to measure teacher performance, and put increased emphasis on low-performing groups as well as on the lowest-performing schools.

While the waivers can easily be seen as an effort to put the Obama administration’s own priorities on legislation from a prior administration, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, claimed that his aim was to get out of a bad law that could overwhelm states that don’t measure up. “Our goal with this waiver process, frankly, has always been to get out of the way of states and districts,” he said. If this were so, however, he would not insist on negotiating for better terms in granting the waivers. Beyond this extent of intervention, that of the No Child Left Behind law requiring “interventions by the district and the state” with failing schools interlards the U.S. Government in a domain that is constitutionally reserved to the states. Absent the enumerated (i.e., listed) powers of the federal government, the fifty republics are sovereign states. While the Congress can spend in the general welfare of the political and monetary union, strings beyond the general purpose trigger a breach of the constitutional design, which should give the republics enough power to act as a check on the other system of government—that of the union itself. That is, specifying down to district intervention meddles inordinately in a state’s system of government to implement federal law.

In terms of education, the role of the U.S. Government should be oriented to regulating the interstate aspects, such as making sure that students are not deprived of equal protection (e.g., not discriminated against) and that out-of-state students are not gauged at the university level. Any spending should come attached to a general purpose (which I believe must be within an enumerated power, especially if there are any strings attached), rather than with requirements for implementation (or penalty). Should a republic not spend the money in line with the purpose (especially if that purpose lies within one of the sovereign domains of the member states), the federal government could sue to get the money back. If this seems to restrict Congressional power unduly, it may be that the federal power had gone so far beyond what is consistent with a federal system that what seems drastic is merely what is necessary to get back in line with it. In terms of failing schools, the underlying problem may be that Americans (i.e., including parents of school children) do not value self-discipline (i.e., at the expense of instant gratification) or education itself enough. Imposing federal requirements and penalties are doomed to fail against such societal disvalues. In other words, we are trashing federalism for nothing.


Richard Perez-Pena, “Waivers for 8 More States from ‘No Child Left Behind,” The New York Times, May 30, 2012.