The last month has not been a good one for liberal policy goals. Most of the legacies of the previous eight years have been under orchestrated and largely unmitigated attack. Naturally, the commentariat of the left has expressed concerns that many of Trump’s cabinet picks and Trump himself may have too much authority and too little experience. Just this month, David Frum of The Atlantic took that idea to the furthest extent and published a piece titled “How to Build an Autocracy.” The article was made the cover story for March and printed next to a big portrait of President Trump. Those in opposition to conservative policies seem terrified that their years of work and good intentions may be swiftly erased by a state monolith. Meanwhile, conservative federalists cry tears of elation.
Donald Trump’s presidency is many things; few among them are ostensibly positive or conservative. That being said, he and his administration present a unique opportunity for constitutional resuscitation. At last, there may exist an administration so abhorrent to the left that state’s rights and federalism can be discussed in earnest. If liberal policymakers are so frightened by Trump’s authority (for the record, I am too) there is good news because they have a way out. This is relevant to almost all policy issues at large today, but I find it especially compelling in the realm of education.
The recent reactions to Betsy DeVos’ nomination and subsequent appointment to head the Department of Education can be described as nothing less than polemic. Most criticism of her started as legitimate policy objections but quickly devolved into broad accusations like “Betsy DeVos will single-handedly decimate public education” –– an actual comment made by Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer. This is the United States, an original bastion for separated powers of government; when exactly did we get to the point of an individual being able to “single-handedly decimate” anything? There are several good arguments for a state-oriented education system, but this should really be the most glaring. No matter if we like the person making the choices or not, systems of government in the U.S. should never have the sort of authority implied by Senator Schumer’s statement and that really shouldn’t be a partisan idea.
Simply put, Washington does not have the authority, nor the means to craft education policy that will effectively serve all –– or even a majority –– of school-age children in 50 states, across 3.8 million square miles. Scandinavian-envy seems to affect many left-of-center education advocates, yet it is seldom considered that places like Sweden are a 35th of the size of the United States, and smaller even than states like California. Educational outcomes in Sweden are, in fact, better than those of the United States on aggregate, therefore we would do well to learn from this and try administering to a smaller student pool. This significantly improves accountability for lawmakers, yet also puts them in a position to draft more comprehensive policies for their districts. As it now stands, aloof politicians on the federal level create a majority of policies that must be executed by state leaders, the problem being that these same state leaders shoulder all of the accountability while being permitted little, if any, of the input. The Department of Education is only 38 years old. In those 38 years, test scores have stayed exactly the same while spending and administration have soared. Why continue to tolerate this?
Further, I find it particularly odd that many of the people calling for more centralized education policies are from states with good systems. What business is it of a Connecticut resident if schools in Wyoming don’t match up with their opinion of a proper education? Don’t move to Wyoming. Ultimately, if states are fully accountable for their own educational outcomes there will be more incentive to improve. After all, poor results would become the responsibility of state leaders and state leaders alone –– no more obfuscations about national policy, no more excuses about red-tape. If certain states are being outcompeted by others, their voters will take note and respond in November. No one wants an inadequate school system.
If you are really concerned about improving education in the United States –– and yes, that is the goal of everyone involved, even those supposedly Randian voucher-advocates –– go to your school board meetings. Get involved with local government, it really isn’t very exclusive. Start focusing on policies that will help outcomes in your state, and quit worrying about what Texas is doing. Fight to make the future such that the opinions of the Secretary of Education do not matter; make Washington irrelevant again, please.